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“ Anyone who travels with his eyes open understands the sense of 
much of what John Zerzan has written and the longer I live the 
greater my contempt for the opportunists who run governments 
and dictate our lives with technology.” —Paul Theroux 







Anti-Copyright 2012 by John Zerzan 
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INTRODUCTION by Michael Becker ix 


1. Future Primitive 1 

2. The Mass Psychology of Misery 25 

3. Tonality and the Totality 45 

4. The Catastrophe of Postmodernism 65 

5. The Nihilist’s Dictionary 91 


6. The Way We Used to Be 111 

7. Origins and the Trickster 127 

8. Complexity 143 

9. Revolt and Heresy in the Late Middle Ages 151 

10. Denying the Unavoidable 159 


11. memory.loss 173 

12. Silence 179 

13. Love 187 

14. Happiness 193 



AS I WRITE THIS INTRODUCTION to John Zerzan’s latest collection 
of essays, three of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear 
complex in northeastern Japan are in varying states of collapse. Radiation 
is cascading into the atmosphere, and the frontline workers trying to fix the 
problem are the first of millions, human and non-human, who will suffer 
fatal radiation sickness as a result. 

The deadly particles irradiating my body as I write these words, and 
yours, as you read them, only exist through the ingenious work of civilized 
human hands. Civilization creates complexity and pits it against nature. 
The more civilized a culture, the more complexity it entails; the more 
complexity, the greater the danger. In the end, civilization always loses 
because civilizations run up against natural limits, and “nature bats last.” 
We can say that civilizations have have life spans, and various indicators 
suggest that modem Western civilization (now global in scope) may be 
reaching its senescence. Efforts to save civilization become increasingly 
desperate and far-fetched (consider the Zeitgeist movies” Venus Project 
or Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline). An entire social movement to 
escape seemingly inevitable collapse masquerades as “environmentalism.” 
On shopping bags and light bulb packages we are exhorted to “save the 
Earth.” A raft of texts on the ecological crisis similarly speak of saving nature 
or preserving ecosystems. Really these texts are about saving civilization. 
Ecosystems, like individual species, have only instrumental value for the 
“greater good.” 

But is civilization worth saving? In saving civilization do we sacrifice 
ourselves in the same way we have sacrificed Earth, nature, ecosystems, 



and species? Such questions are, obviously, non-sensical to anyone who 
is already fully committed to the project of civilization. Unfortunately, 
this comprises nearly all academics in the social and natural sciences, the 
academy, especially in its current corporatized form, being the epitome 
of civilization. Thus they continue to neglect Zerzan’s writings and the 
emerging body of work that has come to be known as anarcho-primitivism. 

This they do at their peril. In this new collection of essays, Zerzan 
once again reminds us that we are the ones who must be saved by the Earth. 
Humans living in civilization have already lost their health, their freedom, 
their natural sense of social solidarity and, most of all, a primordial kinship 
and identification with the natural world. In evolutionary terms it has been 
demonstrated time and again that civilization is a mistake. Civilization is 
inherently unsustainable. Only primitive cultures are sustainable over the 
long term. Today, in its most advanced form, civilization is precipitating 
the Earth’s sixth great extinction crisis. Ultimately our species is also in the 
balance. But civilization has already, for the most part, eradicated our essence 
as natural beings thriving in a natural lifeworld. Were this civilization 
to survive in its current form and direction, humans would be further 
transformed into automatons entirely integrated within an exclusively 
artifactual environment. Whether by catastrophe or design, what is needed 
instead is a “future primitive” that restores the nature of humans and the 
nature of the lifeworld simultaneously. Anarcho-primitivism and Zerzan 
in particular steadfastly assert that only a return to primitive culture can 
restore authentic human dignity. 

My background is in political theory, and what I would like to try 
to do in this introduction is read some basic motifs of Western political 
thought against Zerzan’s anarcho-primitivism. This is by way of homage to 
Zerzan’s impressive body of work and influence in the development of green 
anarchy. But it is also as an attempt to show his place in social theory, a 
matter that I think has been woefully neglected. 

We think of civilization as a type of society emerging some five 
thousand years ago and consisting of a number of interconnected 
features: domestication of plants and animals and increasingly large-scale 
agriculture; food surplus and population growth; writing, specifically the 
development of records concerning measured space (agricultural fields), 
measured time (the calendar and official history), and economic output 
(accounting); continually intensifying division of labor and specialization 



and an emerging class structure; increasingly sophisticated technical means 
of production; urbanization and a demand for luxuries, especially among 
the wealthy, powerful classes; complex trade and the expansion of territory; 
a professional military; and centralized political and religious authority 
which oversees an administrative bureaucracy, directs the military, and 
controls the population. Civilizations collapse under their own weight 
within a relatively short period of time due to population “overshoot” 
and exhaustion of resources, climate change, the disruption of increasing 
sophisticated trade and alliance networks, and social disorder from within. 

One important factor missing from an “objective” definition of 
civilization is any sense of the influence of ideas. The particular practices of 
any civilization are informed by the way people living in those civilizations 
make sense of their lives, especially in regards to religion, politics, philosophy, 
and a more or less mythical account of their origins. My contention, via 
Zerzan’s significant influence, is that founding, fundamental ideas in various 
stages of Western civilization have involved a basic, distorted tension or 
dialectic between the city and nature. In this false dialectic, the depiction 
of primitive peoples has always been imbued with what are actually 
tendencies of civilization. The latter, in turn, has always been presented 
as a fulfillment or completion of the allegedly primitive characteristics 
and elevated above the primitive. The very retention of the idea of nature, 
especially in various stories of a lost “golden age," is not actually so much 
about what has been lost. Rather, especially because these stories have 
always distorted the nature of the primitive and thus provided a kind of 
fun-house mirror to civilization, they provide a psychologically powerful 
reinforcement of what civilization has allegedly gained by compensation. 
Still, these stories served to restrain certain practices and provided (even in 
their tendentious form) an intellectual and spiritual lifeline for citizens to 
retain a sense of belonging to the primordial world of creation . 1 

It is not surprising, then, that the nature of the relationship between 
that which humans create and that which is natural has always been 
a central theme in social theory. Philosophers have been particularly 
concerned with the tension between social conventions — norms, mores, 
laws, and institutions, what the Greeks called nomos — and that which 
comes about independently of human action, nature or phusis. The paradox 
is that humans are a part of nature; the distinction between nomos and 
physis would thus seem irrelevant or even impossible. As natural creatures, 



anything humans do must, ipso facto, be natural. Yet so much of convention 
seems designed to restrain what is natural in humans, to redirect natural 
desire and postpone satisfaction in the pursuit of an objective which the 
mass of humans have had no say in determining as ends-worthy. “Man is 
bom free,” as Rousseau so eloquently put it, “and everywhere is in chains.” 

Yet, like nearly all Western social theorists, Rousseau makes the 
move back toward civilization by raising two important claims. The first 
is that a return to primitive existence is impossible. The long development 
of civilization, especially in the way property has corrupted innate self- 
concern, has allegedly so altered the nature of man that the option of a 
return to simplicity is off the table. Second, Rousseau claims that rational 
man can invent social institutions (the General Will) that reclaim and 
surpass the original, unconscious freedom and social solidarity of savages. 
There is no going back, and who would want to? These are the two basic 
catechisms of life under the Law; they show up almost without exception 
in the history of political ideas. 

Rousseau’s false dialectic between civilization and nature is typical. 
An authentic dialectic can exist only where two contradictory possibilities 
are each instances of reality. But Rousseau and other leading Western 
social theorists implant in their conception of the primitive, natural man 
certain conventions which are actually facets of civilization. They falsify 
the natural side of the dialectic. In Rousseau’s case, he posits two allegedly 
innate traits that are, in fact, paradigmatic of modem civilization: “a faculty 
of improvement” and an isolated, egoistic conception of the individual. 
In the formation of the General Will, each participant must express his 
own views in an entirely direct and unmitigated fashion and then accept 
without question the determinations of the public vote. The primitive 
is allegedly surmounted, then, by raising up and completing a trait — 
atomistic individualism — that is not primitive at all. Plato does this in his 
Republic by asserting that division of labor and complex, monetized trade 
relations are part and parcel of every social group, including the simplest 
precursor of the modem city. They are not. The schemes Plato develops 
for locking individuals into immutable social classes do not refine and lift 
up original, unconscious harmony among separate classes. Class division 
is instead integral to the extreme social stratification in civilized society. 
In The Second Treatise, Locke does this by insisting that the labor theory 
of property acquisition is natural. It is not. The conception of one’s body 



as owned by oneself and the idea that intermingling one’s own labor with 
nature creates an exclusive, individual entitlement to private property are 
quite at odds with primitive communalism. It is, instead, a necessary facet 
of a labor commodity market under capitalism. 

The falsehood of the dialectic between civilization and nature in 
Western political theory is reinforced by sanctifying the move to civilization. 
Thus, the other side of the dialectic is similarly distorted. In cases like those 
of Plato, Locke, and Rousseau, there is a contrived sense of a fall from 
primitive grace. In Book II of The Republic, in discussing the formation of 
communities, Glaucon chastises Socrates for his depiction of humans in 
primitive villages, communities “fit for pigs.” They lack luxuries; civilized 
people are “accustomed to lie on sofas, dine off tables, and they should have 
sweets and sauces in the modem style.” “Yes,” says Socrates, 

now I understand: the question you would have me consider is, 
not only how a State, but how a luxurious State is created ; and 
possibly there is no harm in this, for in such a State we shall 
be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate. In my 
opinion the true and healthy condition of the State is the one 
which I have described. But if you wish also to see a State at 
fever-heat, I have no objection. For I suspect that many will not 
be satisfied with the simpler way of Life [emphasis added ]. 2 

It is Plato’s “opinion” that the primitive village is the “true and healthy” 
community. His use of the word doxa here cannot be accidental when 
the entire purpose of his dialectic is to move from the uncertain ground 
of opinion to absolute knowledge. It is only through civilization that the 
possibility of coming to know the form of Justice and the ultimate Form of 
the Good can be realized. Since coming to know the Form of the Good is the 
pinnacle of human existence, civilization must be a natural prerequisite. 
It seems obvious that Plato cannot regret that which he depicts in a priori 
terms. Besides, Plato makes the demand for luxury into a sort of secondary, 
inevitable cause of the transition to civilization, that which spurs along 
those “naturally” devoid of sufficient reason. 

Perhaps Plato’s mock-tragic sense of civilization as a fall from grace 
is for those benighted enough to believe that the primitive is actually 
preferable to civilization. This would almost certainly be targeted at the 



anarcho-primitivists of his own day, the Cynics (especially Diogenes who 
allegedly tramped muddy footprints across Plato’s carpets). But humans 
are not designed by nature to fit a preordained system of division of labor; 
the shift to civilization is not inevitable; and Plato’s theory of forms, not to 
mention his theory of Justice and the ideal state, does not even remotely 
recuperate the inherent social solidarity of the original, “true and healthy” 

The dialectical tension between the civitas and nature is deepened 
and strengthened though the depiction of a fall from natural grace. That 
the depiction of primitive human life in the rendering of this dialectic is 
false serves to privilege civilized humans” alleged transcendence of the 
primitive. In Locke this occurs in his account of property in The Second 
Treatise. Locke’s analysis, like that of his predecessor, Hobbes, proceeds 
from an allegedly original, primitive state of nature, one devoid of social 
and political institutions. Private property — the mixing of one’s self-owned 
labor with nature — is only limited by the degree of labor one can perform, 
the spoilage of that which is removed from nature, and the sufficiency of land 
and natural resources for others. The invention of money, Locke contends, 
is rational and natural inasmuch as it facilitates trade and thus access to 
the conveniences of life. Yet, inasmuch as it allows for the acquisition of 
unlimited amounts of property, money is simultaneously depicted by Locke 
in Biblical terms of original sin. “This is certain, that in the beginning, before 
the desire of having more than one needed had altered the intrinsic value of 
things, which depends only on their usefulness to the life of man...each one 
of himself [had] as much of the things of nature as he could use [with] the 
same plenty...left to those who would use the same industry .” 3 Life in a state 
of nature is initially marked by “peace, good will, mutual assistance and 
preservation.” With money, greed and property inequality create conflict 
and the need for a state to adjudicate property disputes. 

As with Plato, though, remorse at the fall amounts to crocodile 
tears. The achievements of civilization more than make up for the loss 
of primitive innocence. In Locke’s case the fall is compensated for by the 
superabundance which investment of money in land allows. Money does 
not spoil, allows for wage contracts to purchase others” labor, and increases 
productivity indefinitely. Whereas primitive life entails a zero-sum game, 
moneyed capitalism enables a constantly expanding array of luxuries. 
References to a transcendent Law of Nature help to cover the gap between 



the primitive and those rights still retained under the state. Moreover, they 
are useful in combating the primitivists of his time, the radical Levellers and 
Diggers of the English revolution who proclaimed the retaking of private 
landholdings as their natural birthright. But in reality Locke’s political 
thought is straightforwardly materialistic: for those who work hard, “the 
rational and industrious,” the abundance and variety of material pleasures 
in civilization more than make up for the loss of primitive equality and 
freedom. The world is theirs by legal right, founded in social contract 
among property holders; state coercion and disqualification from political 
participation exist for the “covetous and quarrelsome.” 

While Rousseau sees Locke’s social contract as morally bankrupt, 
he does not propose a return to the primitive. The healthy self-love of the 
savage is irrevocably lost. Vainglorious self-love, amour propre, develops in 
tandem with civilization and especially with property. But Rousseau too 
sanctifies civilization by arguing that reason is sufficient to “find a form 
of association which may defend and protect with the whole force of the 
community the person and property of every associate and by means of 
which each, coalescing with all, may nevertheless obey only himself, and 
remain as free as before .” 4 Rousseau’s revised social contract allegedly 
achieves this self-conscious act of redemption. Traditional anarchism has 
always insisted on the plausibility of such a social arrangement, without 
considering that it is the very socioeconomic and political practices of 
civilization along with the fake dialectics supporting them that seem to 
make such an arrangement impossible. 

In spite of their portrayal of the transition to civilization in terms of 
loss, each of the theorists mentioned actually presents a definite continuity 
between nature and the city. Civilization compensates for loss by refining 
and perfecting tendencies allegedly at the heart of primitive humankind. In 
reality there is a radical rupture or break between primitive and civilized 
life. In known historical instances, the shift from one to the other involved 
violent conquest, not consent. The move resulted from coercion on pain 
of death, dislocation and cultural destruction, not the inevitable working 
out of allegedly intrinsic human characteristics. Archeological evidence 
makes clear that the precursors of civilization emerged over a long period, 
certainly not through the consent of any particular group. But there is 
an unmistakable disjuncture between the earliest megamachines of the 
Tigris-Euphrates river valley and the gatherer-hunter and horticulturalist 



communities that preceded civilization for a hundred millennia. 

With few, partial exceptions, Paul Shepard among them, social 
theorists have returned to the false dialectics of the tradition rather than 
look this rupture square in the face . 5 Even in the emerging academic 
field of environmental political theory, where sustainability is a leading 
theme, theorists consistently fail to make more than passing mention of 
the only cultures that are sustainable for extended periods — primitive 
cultures. Where primitive lifeways receive any notice, a variety of caveats 
are always included: the author is in no way suggesting that a return to 
stone-age technologies is either possible or desirable; similarly, that no one 
would prefer such a life to modernity; and that, at any rate, these previous 
cultures also damaged their environments . 6 In Devall and Sessions” 
groundbreaking work Deep Ecology, a full two pages is devoted to primitive 
peoples, concluding with the statement that “Supporters of deep ecology 
do not advocate ‘going back to the stone age,” but seek inspiration from 
primal traditions .” 7 Most notable in this regard, perhaps, is Joel Kovel’s The 
Enemy of Nature. An otherwise excellent critique of the disastrous impact 
of capitalism on the natural environment, Kovel, in the space of a few 
pages, manages to alternately uphold primitive lifeways as exemplary of 
care for the Earth and condemn them for bringing on the most fundamental 
elements of capitalist exploitation . 8 

There has been a failure to come to grips with the tension between 
primitive culture and civilization, reflective of a long tradition in Western 
political thought. But now the stakes are considerably greater. Today, the 
radical break between nature and the city is paralleled by a similar radical 
discontinuity between previous modes of civilization and contemporary 
technological civilization, both in practice and in ideology. The traditional 
dialectic is broken. Cybernetic existence retains no sense of either nature 
or a primitive state. The fall from grace, even as metaphor, slips into the 
oblivion of the spectacle. The “end of nature” is boldly proclaimed across 
the board, from ethicists to environmental moderates to geo-engineers to 
postmodernists to neo-Marxists and neo-Stalinists . 9 Hyper-technological 
feats never before even possibly dreamed of, let alone engaged in, help 
give rise to and are reinforced by the idea that nature is dead and only 
civilization exists. What need is there for myths of emergence from a 
pristine, natural social order when the future promises limitless energy, 
endless technological fantasy and human immortality? Nuclear power 



(let alone terraced agriculture, pyramids or the steel plow) is child’s play 
compared to the synthesizing of consciousness; new engineering at the 
genetic, geo, and nano scale; the singularity; and the indefinite extension 
of human life span. These “hyper-technologies” both help to constitute and 
reinforce the idea that humans, entirely by their own technological design, 
will live totally outside of nature. In fact, there is not and has never been 
any such thing as nature. Perhaps the mythic idea of nature will continue 
for some time as a relic, a basis for destroying any possibility of myth. The 
point is technological utopia: we have no place in existence other than the 

This unprecedented notion of civilization detached from nature 
creates an altogether new danger. Now, nothing, not even exalted human 
nature, is distinctly recognizable. Every thing becomes materiel or “standing 
reserve ” 10 for integration into vast self-regulating systems. As Heidegger 
put it, “man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of 
the standing-reserve.... he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; 
that is, he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as 
standing-reserve.” This fall into the machine world goes as unnoticed as 
the disappearance of myths, stories, and ideas that reminded us of another, 
original home for human beings. Thus, in the cybernetic age, the concept 
of “personnel” or “human resource management” shocks no one; it is banal. 
And the managers have no more recourse than the managed to traditional 
civilizational stories (let alone primitive myths). There is no history or 
mythic origin to be fulfilled, no lost, original state of nature to be redeemed. 
The nihilism inherent in this epoch is reflected in the steadily rotating 
recurrence of the technicized will to power. 

The idea of an entirely engineered world broke the traditional dialectic. 
In this dialectic the image of an original state of nature was always distorted 
and de-privileged to serve the purposes of an equally distorted and exalted 
civilized order; now one side of the dialectic, nature, is obliterated; the other 
becomes a monstrosity. From out of this unprecedented danger arises the 
possibility for a more clear-eyed understanding of exactly what civilization 
is and what it left behind. Now that technique has been proclaimed the 
totality, it is possible for both sides of the dialectic to be grasped in a more 
essential light. No writer, living or dead, has undertaken this task in a more 
thorough and unflinching manner as John Zerzan. 

In this and previous collections of essays Zerzan offers us an 



extraordinary survey of texts in philosophy, archeology and anthropology, 
social psychology, and arts and literature. Zerzan demonstrates that 
civilization threatens us, not just in terms of its technological gigantism 
and the global effects of technical failure, but more so in the way that it 
robs us, daily and ever more intensively, of a fundamental kinship with 
the natural world and with one another. Evolution is generally thought of 
in terms of a species adaptation to the environment. Civilization develops 
by fundamentally altering the environment. If this is to be called an 
adaptation then human beings (though agents of civilization) must adapt 
to the adaptation. Becoming civilized is a matter of compulsion. It entails 
the loss, not the attainment of freedom. It denies life; it does not fulfill it. 

Civilization alters the environment mainly through the acquisition 
of energy resources, in earlier phases through deforestation, and now 
through the use of fossil fuels. But intensive energy use is necessitated 
by large-scale agriculture and the development of cities. Agriculture rests 
on the domestication of plants and animals, a process that developed only 
very gradually and probably in the context of climate change occurring 12 
thousand years ago. Zerzan merely notes the obvious: humans, too, become 
domesticated, ruthlessly. Now the experience of being human must be 
subjected to the total control of a system bent on the total control of being 
itself. In this sense contemporary civilization is a difference in degree but 
of such an extent that it becomes a difference in kind. 

We miss the whole point if we say merely that civilization is 
marked by agriculture and turns the vast majority of the population into 
agricultural and, later, wage-debtor slaves. Agriculture requires precise 
and rigid measurement systems for demarcating space (the field), time 
(the agricultural calendar), and the volume of production (accounting). 
Measurement requires the use of number, and number requires symbolic 
thought. More fundamentally still, these procedures require representational 
language. Zerzan contends that all of these elements are artifacts of 
civilization. Rendering them part and parcel of our cognitive orientation in 
the world is the source of our profound entrapment in the “iron cage.” They 
are the psychological and intellectual determinants of our alienation from 
the authentic world of free, primitive human existence. Recent innovations 
like surveillance cameras and supermax prisons are obvious outward signs 
of control. But the most fundamental factors of our imprisonment in what 
is now becoming a total matrix of technological control are time, number, 



symbol, and representation. One might say that these are the “micro- 
microphysics” of institutionalized power relations. 

The traditional, false nature-civilization dialectic reenters at this 
point. Aristotle distinguishes the social nature of human beings by our 
complex capacity for language. This is true as far as it goes. But this line 
of reasoning fails to distinguish between language that culminates in an 
abstract search for first principles and that form of intuitive language that 
involves a direct communication between human animals and our plant 
and non-human animal companions on Mother Earth. Stories of this type of 
“language older than words” are universal among primitive peoples. 

Forthe Pythagoreans andotherpre-Socraticphilosophers, andf or Plato, 
number or numerical ratio is not only a means of expressing the harmony 
of the universe, but is its essence. Numeracy, especially in geometry, is basic 
to being human and is a hallmark of advanced civilization. What then are 
we to make of accounts such as that of Thomas Jefferson Mayfield who, 
in 1850, at age seven, on the death of his mother, was left by his father to 
grow up with the Choinumni band of Yokuts Indians? Mayfield recalled an 
easily learned Yokuts number system that could be used to do calculations 
in an indefinitely large number of digits. 11 Why develop such a system in 
the absence of the need for a calendar or the astronomical calculations on 
which the calendar is designed? It is possible that the detailed familiarity 
with an extraordinary array of species of plants and animals and the means 
of maintaining an environment in which all species, including humans, 
could flourish negated the need to use numbers as a means of control. Given 
a way of life that M. Kat Anderson has so aptly described as “tending the 
wild,” complex numeracy was perhaps a plaything or maybe a joke on how 
poorly a strict use of numbers could approximate a deeply practical and 
mythologically informed spiritual connection to Life. 12 

A detailed measurement of time is often pointed to as representing 
a higher order of civilized, human existence. A linear sense of time is, 
apparently, of a higher, more civilized sort. Tracing evolutionary progress 
depends upon it. It can be used both cosmologically to trace the age of 
the universe and, historically, to survey major human events and how they 
relate to one another. Now, time is measured by such extremes as light 
years and nanoseconds. But at what point do these measurements, defying 
as they do all human experience, slip over into a more primordial dream 
time of aboriginal peoples? 13 And if they never do, are we not cut off from 


Future Primitive Revisited 

a more fundamental sense of time that allows us to integrate with, rather 
than be cut off from reality? On this other “scale” of time great events and 
the spirits of ancestors apparently can be experienced simultaneously 
as past and as present. For some primitive peoples the future is thought 
of as “behind” oneself, having already occurred. It is not that primitive 
people have no language, obviously, or no conceptions of number and 
time. Rather, they may have experiences of language, number and time 
that do not undercut the identity of human consciousness and the natural 
lifeworld in which humans are co-participants. Zerzan’s focus is exactly 
here, on the radical continuity between human perception, consciousness 
and nature. This continuity seems so evident in primitive cultures and so 
abandoned today. It is precisely in such abandonment that we experience 
the “disenchantment of the world.” 

In this sense, the ultimate bankruptcy of the traditional dialectic 
lies in Plato’s separation of body and perception, on the one hand, and the 
mind or soul and consciousness, on the other. The debasement of the body 
as the source of ignorance and its association with the primitive, and the 
elevation of the mind and its association with enlightenment are, of course, 
the basis for the political dialectic of nature and the city. In Plato, the 
Form of the Good, the epistemological and ontological source of truth and 
reality, is represented metaphorically by the sun. The latter is alternately 
described as Lord, Father, and King of all light and seeing, physical and 
intellectual. By contrast “the body is the prison of the soul,” the dungeon, 
a place of entrapment and darkness. The resonance of this metaphor 
points backwards to earlier civilizations” association of the sun god with 
the divine king and forward to the enlightenment. Even if it is only via 
negation, the figures of the body, Earth, mother, and fertility remain a part 
of the dialectic. Primitive peoples never divorced any of these realms and 
thus never separated themselves from the reality of which they (and we) 
and everything are a part, always, all of us, as both mind/spirit and body. 
But what is once divided must be repaired. As this would actually require 
the forbidden return to primitive consciousness and practice, civilization 
attempts substitutes. 

For Zerzan, the remedy civilization unconsciously prescribes for our 
separation from nature and holds up as its greatest achievement is art, 
especially visual art. Not infrequently the 20,000-year-old cave paintings in 
Lascaux, France are pointed to as evidence of the first modem humans, our 



first actual human relations. There is truth to this, in that they may have 
been the first to express their anxiety at being cut off from reality and the 
first to try to repair the breach through art. The vividness of aesthetic work, 
the sense of presence, of a world revealing itself in the very act of creative 
power, for Zerzan, is a pale imitation of the lived, immediate sense of daily 
reality for primitive peoples. The cave paintings mark the initial demise 
of a way of life that predated them by scores of thousands of years. Art 
is shorthand for civilization; it is a psychological compensation for loss of 
identity and never actually fills the void. Only a return to the primitive can 
allay the anxiety that suffuses art. 

Zerzan’s uniqueness lies in his unrelenting rejection not only of all 
civilized norms and institutions, but even of the roots of such ideas and 
institutions — "objective” language, abstract notions of space and measured 
time, symbolic expression, especially art — basically any representational 
forms of consciousness. Modem forms of alienation, and they are obviously 
rampant, have their roots in a deep angst that is co-constituted with the 
basic premises and prerequisites of civilization. Civilization has its own 
trajectory: from the earliest cave paintings, humans have tried to repair 
the breach with nature by further control of nature. Each step away 
from immediate identification with our primordial, natural lifeworld 
merely deepens the crisis. Now, in the hyper-technological, an original 
state of nature is falling into oblivion. (A sun metaphor for knowledge 
is unnecessary in age of cyclotrons and an environment of compact 
fluorescent light.) Zerzan measures its disappearance, in part, by the sheer 
scale of psychopathology in modem existence — parents killing their own 
children, school shootings, workplace shootings, the mass addiction of 
young children to legal psychotropic drugs for the treatment of all manner 
of new social and psychological dysfunction, the mass addiction of children 
and adults to illegal drugs, and so on. 

Many critics of industrial civilization use the metaphor of a 
speeding train heading for a wreck. By Zerzan’s account we might say that 
civilization is like a vast hole, with the living participants being consigned, 
collectively, to the inescapable role of “digger.” The rule is that salvation can 
be found only through more efficient and relentless means of digging; the 
participants experience the mute horror of watching natural light recede 
while engineers design artificial lighting and air conditioning systems. An 
increasingly powerful legal-bureaucratic-managerial authority promises 


Future Primitive Revisited 

a vast array of material pleasure as the reward for digging, poverty and 
insecurity for those who refuse to dig, and severe repression for those who 
sabotage the digging apparatus. When the workers dig deeply enough they 
will discover an underground river called Styx (hatred) and its confluence 
with other rivers, including Lethe (forgetfulness and oblivion), and these 
will mark their crossing over from life to death. And the shovels will be 
taken from their hands and replaced with oars, and their training in digging 
will suit them perfectly for rowing with metronomic precision. And they 
will pull endlessly along this dark river, forgetting there was ever even a 
world of sun, green earth, and air. And with these metaphors civilization 
will think that it is indicting the dark, prehistoric world. But really it is only 
indicting its own efforts at constructing an entirely man-made environment 
where “misery is the river of the world” and everybody rows. 

To the civilization that would intentionally design such a present and 
future, Zerzan has always said, unequivocally, “Bring it down! Sabotage it! 
Don’t merely visualize industrial collapse, collapse it!” His condemnation 
of civilization and his support for its saboteurs has won him, in general, 
silence from academic and popular environmentalist writers. For those 
detractors who have taken note of Zerzan’s views, every kind of charge has 
been leveled at him including genocide (ad populum arguments being the 
better part of intellectual valor). Chomsky and Murray Bookchin, among 
others, contend that advocating the destruction of civilization amounts to 
a call for mass killing, inasmuch as it is only vast technological systems 
that can keep billions alive. It is, in my view, a shortcoming of his work 
that Zerzan has not written more about what a total frontal assault on 
civilization would entail. Where he has (for instance in “Postscript to Future 
Primitive, Re: The Transition”) he points to current or potential practices 
that can bridge the gap between a de-commissioned civilization and a 
future primitive existence. These include growing food in cities, especially 
by employing permaculture techniques, treating cities like museums and 
using them as “moveable celebration sites,” intentionally and radically 
reducing population as a cultural practice associated with recognizing 
natural limits, reducing population in colder climes where energy use is 
currently so intensive, increasing use of traditional health and healing 
practices, and the immersion of people in a whole array of spontaneous and 
communal activities from skill sharing to construction of simpler, more 
organically designed shelter. Needless to say, Zerzan’s point is not to attack 



infrastructure and let everyone die. Anyway it debases humans to say that 
we can only live as appendages to vast systems. 

Zerzan and others have pointed out, in rejoinder to Chomsky, that 
it is certain that when civilizations crash, sudden and abrupt population 
decreases occur. It is virtually certain that seven billion people and 
counting will not be able to be kept alive at the current increasing rate 
of resource use and climate change, especially as millions more each year 
adopt consumerist lifestyles. So the burden is on them to show that what 
they advocate can actually avert the real threat of a total, sudden collapse. 
Moreover, it is up to them to show how, if current technological civilization 
is to be maintained, its colossal degree of hierarchy and alienation can be 
addressed. Zerzan’s betting that it can’t, and the history of civilization tends 
to reinforce that view. 

This gets to the real heart of the matter. The malignant reactions to 
Zerzan’s work derive, I think, from his refusal to cop out on his own analysis. 
He promises no technological or social engineering magic that will lift us from 
the morass. He will not double down on the fake promises of civilization in 
order to extract another half-century of alienation. This constitutes a betrayal 
of 2500 years of social theory; the official voices of the left and right will not 
tolerate it. But a growing minority of anarchists — primitivists or not — and 
others will not keep digging; what we retain of our original condition, and it 
is much as Zerzan points out in the third section of this collection, rebels at 
further indoctrination and conformity. When the very concept of the living, 
natural world and human beings” fundamental belonging together with it 
is under attack from many quarters, not the least of which is an array of 
mainstream writers calling themselves “environmentalists,” primitivism is 
a natural, necessary, and urgent response. Civilization versus primitivism 
mirrors the question of nomos versus physis, but in a new and raw way given 
the urgency of this latest crisis of civilization. With some notable exceptions, 
Zerzan’s critics are devoted to saving civilization, not saving the earth. 
But civilization wars against Earth. In their own bias toward civilization, 
Zerzan’s detractors fail to recognize that the actual roots of ecological crisis 
fundamentally threaten our own inner nature, not just the outer natural 
world of which we are part. 

This failure of constructive dialogue is unfortunate. It undercuts the 
basis of social theory. And herein lies a great paradox regarding Zerzan: 
he is engaging in a quintessential^ civilized practice, critical theory. It 



is a paradox, not a contradiction, any more so than his using a computer 
or publishing books . 14 But the danger in engaging in social theory, and 
this too is a legacy of civilization, is that it tends toward the discovery 
of absolute truths, which, once attained, close off discussion, critique and 
questioning. That is to say, it closes off freedom. If the threat of a “green 
fascism” exists it is not because of a need for totalitarian control to totally 
revolutionize society. Rather, total authority rests in the discovery of alleged 
universal truths, themselves reduced to useable ideologies; thus the way 
is opened for totalitarianism. Something very much like that exists and 
goes unchallenged in technological-industrial civilization with its right of 
property and technological inevitability. But what one of Zerzan’s former 
colleagues at Fifth Estate pointed out more than a decade ago is, perhaps, 
only more accurate now. 

Much of anarcho-primitivism today, however small the milieu may be, 
seems to falling into the thrall of a simplistic ideology that pretends to have 
a global response to an unprecedented crisis in what it means to be human.... 
It is a kind of “clash of civilizations” idea that compresses a multiplicity of 
human experience into a binary opposition...a reductionist legend in which 
primordial paradise is undermined by an ur-act of domestication . 15 

At its best anarcho-primitivists continue a rich anti-tradition by 
seeking to use the tools of civilization, including social theory, to smash 
institutions and return to nature. In doing so anti-civ theory would serve as 
a provisional basis for attack and might be maintained in a future primitive 
culture as a constant warning against the disastrous results of hubris, 
technical innovation, and centralized authority much in the way of coyote 
stories or iktome stories among many native peoples in North America. But 
across the millennia of civilization the tendency has nearly always been in 
the opposite direction, and we already see this in contemporary anarcho- 
primitivist thought and action . 16 This reverse movement includes the two 
most important elements of civilization itself: the discovery of “absolute 
truth” and its imposition on a mass level. Anti-civ would become a new, 
unquestioned “meta-narrative” that explains extraordinarily complex 
matters of civilization and primitive culture in a few sound bites. 

This tendency can be seen in the Deep Green Resistance movement. In 
a recent article Derrick Jensen, Aric McBay, and Lierre Keith write, “Ninety- 
eight percent of the population will do nothing unless they are led, cajoled 
or forced. If the structural determinants are in place for them to live their 



lives without doing damage...then that’s what happens .” 17 It is down to the 
other two percent, who presumably have grasped the truth and know the 
solutions, to shift the society toward the “proper structural determinants.” 

I think Zerzan’s theoretical insights into the real character of 
civilization are keen enough to detect the authoritarianism inherent in this 
perspective. The authors leave open the question of concrete steps to be 
taken. But anarchism is already foreclosed on as an option if a vanguard 
fighting force is oriented toward creating proper structural determinants 
for the masses. 

Where Zerzan is more open to Watson’s critique is in his wholesale 
denunciations of civilization. Zerzan’s analysis runs the risk of becoming, 
simply, a reversal of the traditional false dialectic. Now it is civilization 
that is repugnant and irredeemable, while the primitive promises absolute 
fulfillment. One problem with this is that by succumbing to traditional 
logic, elements of civilization will always be retained because the primitive 
will necessarily derive its meaning from the negation of civilization. More 
problematic is that it assumes a universal standpoint: all civilization is 
evil. Obviously no one can say with certainty that every possible future 
civilization will retain the destructive elements of past civilizations or 
that no civilization can ever possibly be created that reconciles itself with 
primitive culture. Historical evidence suggests this to be sure. But the 
point of anarcho-primitivist critical theory is precisely to be another of the 
bridges to the future primitive. 

In that respect, if it is to remain anarchistic it is bound to remain 
open to at least the possibility of retaining some features of civilization. 
At its best what it provides is the basis for rejecting ideas and practices 
that will reintroduce what we are only now coming to sense and know as 
the structural determinants that breed alienation in many wide-ranging 
forms. So types of technology or modes of practice might be retained but 
only if they can be reconciled with human freedom and identification with 
Earth as the place of all Life. As a bridge to the future anarcho-primitivism 
might begin, to lay out some basic, interrelated questions that can be used 
to appropriately judge human actions, given the knowledge of civilization’s 
typical deep threats: Does the idea or practice in question create hierarchy, 
either between humans or between humans and non-human life? Asked 
another way, does it establish a realm of knowledge and technical 
sophistication that preclude others from making intelligent decisions about 



its effects? Does it introduce a dependency on abstract notions such as 
space and time that distort our relation to given natural reality? Does it 
involve the need for expansion of territory or use of resources in a way that 
systemically deprives other beings of life? For all of its problems otherwise, 
it would involve the maxim of Leopold’s land ethic: “A thing is right when it 
tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. 
It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” 

This is a high and probably impossible standard for civilization to 
meet. But to assume that it is impossible is going too far. We find something 
like the possible reconciliation of civilization and the primitive in non-fiction 
(as in Paul Shepard’s work, mentioned above) and in fiction, for example in 
Marge Piercy’s VJoman on the Edge of Time. Neither this novel nor anything 
else should be held up as a platform; but they remind us to keep open the 
possibility that some of the advantages of civilization could be integrated 
into a culture that is guided by the deeper insights of primitive life. 

All of this probably overstates the role of choice. No one ever chose 
to be primitive or civilized. We can only choose how to respond to the 
conditions we confront. Primitive culture and civilization developed over 
long periods of time and always in the context of evolving ecological 
and social conditions. In their twilight and decline previous civilizations 
suffered from ecological decline and internal revolt. Choices regarding how 
to go forward emerged under conditions of serious strife. It would seem 
that this civilization is the first to take full empirical measure of its own 
impending decline. But in typical fashion its leading cultural figures refuse 
to hear the voices of those most certain to war against civilized order. These 
essays comprise another opportunity to listen, to respond, and, in the midst 
of gathering peril, to continue the search for a dignified, natural, and free 
human existence. 

—Michael Becker 




1. In this context it is worth pointing out briefly some of the intellectual 

forebears of anarcho-primitivism. Diogenes and the adherents of his 
primitivist philosophy consistently expressed utter contempt for the laws, 
institutions, customs, and manners that comprised ancient Athens and 
ancient Rome. They ate, shit, slept, and had sex openly; they accosted people 
in the marketplace and theatre and berated them for their pretension and 
hypocrisy. Condemned by their opponents as living a life fit for dogs, they 
adopted the label Cynics (dogs) and proceeded to bark at, urinate on and bite 
their opponents. Zerzan provides us a nice historical overview of anarchists 
with at least a primitivist bent, especially the Brothers and Sisters of the Free 
Spirit, in the fourteenth century: see “Revolt and Heresy in the Late Middle 
Ages" below. Radical Levellers and Diggers during the English Revolution 
similarly reflected a determination to live in accord with an earlier, simpler, 
free and egalitarian existence. And two centuries later the Luddites wrecked 
machines right across England. 

2 Plato, The Republic, translated by Benjamin Jowett (New York: Anchor Books, 
1973), 57. A state at “fever heat" is among the most honest depictions of 
civilization you will find in the Western canon; it conveys the delirious 
intensity and sickening pace of modernity. Only a student of Socrates could 
present such an ironic portrait of the polis. 

3 John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, edited with an introduction 
by C.B. McPherson (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Co., 1980). 23. 

4 Jean Jacques Tousseau, The Social Contract and Discourse on the Origin 
of Inequality, edited with an introduction by Lester G. Crocker (New York: 
Washington Square Press, 1976), 17-18. 

5 Paul Shepherd, The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game (New York: Charles 
Scribner's Sons, 1973). 

6 For various formulations of these arguments see articles by Milbrath, Pirages, 
and, especially, McLaughlin and Zimmerman in Explorations in Environmental 
Political Theory, ed. Joel Jay Kassiola (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2003). 

7 Bill Devall and George Sessions, Deep Ecology (Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith 
Inc., 1985), 97. 

8 In our “original condition" human intelligence and consciousness learned to 
take an ecocentric form, creating a "people who differentiate nature and know 
the individual plant species one by one, who live in the small, collectively 
managed communities that provide an immense range of opportunities for 
allopatric speciation, and who develop [an] existentially alive culture." Kovel 
necessarily claims that the “original” humans only learned individual plant 
species because hunting is said to be the cause of the earliest transition 
away from primitive innocence. Though he provides virtually no actual 
anthropological or archeological evidence for this and claims that it is 
“shrouded in an impenetrably distant past," he attributes the growth of 


Future Primitive Revisited 

civilization, and ultimately its most exploitative form, capitalism, to the 
“death-dealing tools of the hunt," alleged sex-differentiation which hunting 
brought on, and the extension of hunting from animals to women and 
children captives from rival tribes. Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature (London: 
Zed Books, 2007), 120-127. 

9 Paul Taylor’s Respect for Nature is rather typical in defining nature as a 
place entirely untouched by human action. This amounts to an end to nature 
in that humans have no place or role in nature save to protect whatever 
wild nature remains. High civilization, by contrast, is precisely the ethical 
standard for determining when nature can be sacrificed. Obviously the more 
specific claim that nature has been eclipsed is found in McKibben’s well- 
known text, The End of Nature. Another popular text, Stewart Brand’s Whole 
Earth Discipline, opens with the caption "We are as gods and HAVE to get 
good at it [emphasis original].” Compared with Hawken and Lovins" Natural 
Capitalism, where salvation will be achieved through “higher efficiency 
in everything" and “biology-inspired industrial processes,” Brand takes 
the step of reversing terms; he prefers to think of “ecosystems services as 
infrastructure." Timothy Morton, in Ecology Without Nature, seems to be on 
an interesting track in his claim that dispensing with the idea of nature is 
a prerequisite for rediscovering the sublime. But he seems to end up mainly 
with deconstructionist word games. In neo-Marxian thought, Steven Vogel 
has made the case for dropping the word “nature" with all its metaphysical 
ambiguities and instead focusing on the term “environment." Regarding the 
latter, we find, first, that the entire environment has, in fact, been altered 
by human activity. Secondly, our alienation stems not from separation from 
“nature” but from our lack of control over the built environment, the one and 
only environment that remains and, in any case, that in which we actually 
live, work, and breathe. Finally, in Living in the End Times the pop-philosopher 
Slovej Zizek asks us to accept that “nature no longer exists" and, further, to 
accept “our full alienation from nature.” Science and technology are “the only 
solution...not to feel more organic with Mother Earth... we are already within 
technology." What we should do is “remain open and just patiently work; 
work how? Also with much stronger social discipline." He calls for a new sort 
of solidarity, proletarian discipline as a means of confronting ecological crisis. 

10 Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, translated with an 
introduction by William Lovitt (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1982), 18. 

11 Frank Latta, Tailholt Tales (New York: Brewer’s Historical Press, 1976). 

12 M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild (Berkeley, California: University of 
California Press, 2005). 

13 Stanley Diamond, In Search of the Primitive (New Brunswick, New Jersey: 
Transaction Books, 1974). 

14 There are many, apparently, who can’t see the difference, that is, who dismiss 
Zerzan because he does not live in a cave and hunt with a stone knife. For 
them I can only recommend Bukowski’s “Dinosauria, We." 

15 David Watson, “Swamp Fever, Primitivism and the 'Ideological Vortex’: 

Farewell to All That," in the Anarchist Library, 
David_Watson Swamp_Fever Primitivism the Ideological_Vortex 



Fare well_to_All_That.html ( 19 97 ). 

16 One of the less noted parts of Freddy Perlman's classic work Against History, 
Against Leviathan is his observation that “barbarians" in each so-called 
dark age ultimately failed to dismantle sovereign institutions and ideas 
and, instead, ultimately embraced the very cultural and political forms of 
sovereignty they originally fought against. They “re-caged" themselves rather 
than “re-wilding" themselves. 

17 Derrick Jensen et al., “An Excerpt from Deep Green Resistance," in Earth First! 
the Radical Environmental Journal, 30th Anniversary Edition, vol. 1 (Samhain/ 
Yule, 2010): 10. 









DIVISION OF LABOR, which has had so much to do with bringing 
us to the present global crisis, works daily to prevent our understanding 
the origins of this horrendous present. Mary Lecron Foster (1990) surely 
errs on the side of understatement in allowing that anthropology is today 
“in danger of serious and damaging fragmentation.” Shanks and Tilley 
(1987b) voice a rare, related challenge: “The point of archaeology is not 
merely to interpret the past but to change the manner in which the past 
is interpreted in the service of social reconstruction in the present.” Of 
course, the social sciences themselves work against the breadth and depth 
of vision necessary to such a reconstruction. In terms of human origins and 
development, the array of splintered fields and sub-fields — anthropology, 
archaeology, paleontology, ethnology, paleobotany, ethnoanthropology, etc., 
etc. — mirrors the narrowing, crippling effect that civilization has embodied 
from its very beginning. 

Nonetheless, the literature can provide highly useful assistance, if 
approached with an appropriate method and awareness and the desire to 
proceed past its limitations. In fact, the weakness of more or less orthodox 
modes of thinking can and does yield to the demands of an increasingly 
dissatisfied society. Unhappiness with contemporary life becomes distrust 
with the official lies that are told to legitimate that life, and a truer picture 
of human development emerges. Renunciation and subjugation in modem 
life have long been explained as necessary concomitants of “human nature.” 
After all, our pre-civilized existence of deprivation, brutality, and ignorance 



made authority a benevolent gift that rescued us from savagery. “Cave 
man” and “Neanderthal” are still invoked to remind us where we would be 
without religion, government, and toil. 

This ideological view of our past has been radically overturned in 
recent decades, through the work of academics like Richard Lee and 
Marshall Sahlins. A nearly complete reversal in anthropological orthodoxy 
has come about, with important implications. Now we can see that life 
before domestication/agriculture was in fact largely one of leisure, intimacy 
with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual equality, and health. This was our 
human nature, for a couple of million years, prior to enslavement by priests, 
kings, and bosses. 

And lately another stunning revelation has appeared, a related one 
that deepens the first and may be telling us something equally important 
about who we were and what we might again become. The main line 
of attack against new descriptions of gatherer-hunter life has been, 
though often indirect or not explicitly stated, to characterize that life, 
condescendingly, as the most an evolving species could achieve at an early 
stage. Thus, the argument allows that there was a long period of apparent 
grace and pacific existence, but says that humans simply didn’t have the 
mental capacity to leave simple ways behind in favor of complex social and 
technological achievement. 

In another fundamental blow to civilization, we now leant that 
not only was human life once, and for so long, a state that did not know 
alienation or domination, but as the investigations since the ‘80s by 
archaeologists John Fowlett, Thomas Wynn, and others have shown, those 
humans possessed an intelligence at least equal to our own. At a stroke, as 
it were, the “ignorance” thesis is disposed of, and we contemplate where we 
came from in a new light. 

To put the issue of mental capacity in context, it is useful to review the 
various (and again, ideologically loaded) interpretations of human origins 
and development. Robert Ardrey (1961, 1976) served up a bloodthirsty, 
macho version of prehistory, as have, to slightly lesser degrees, Desmond 
Morris and Lionel Tiger. Similarly, Freud and Konrad Lorenz wrote of the 
innate depravity of the species, thereby providing their contributions to 
hierarchy and power in the present. 

Fortunately, a far more plausible outlook has emerged, one that 
corresponds to the overall version of Paleolithic life in general. Food 



sharing has for some time been considered an integral part of earliest 
human society (e.g. Washburn and DeVore, 1961). Jane Goodall (1971) and 
Richard Leakey (1978), among others, have concluded that it was the key 
element in establishing our uniquely Homo development at least as early 
as two million years ago. This emphasis, carried forward since the early 
‘70s by Linton, Zihlman, Tanner, and Isaac, has become ascendant. One of 
the telling arguments in favor of the cooperation thesis, as against that of 
generalized violence and male domination, involves a diminishing, during 
early evolution, of the difference in size and strength between males and 
females. Sexual dimorphism, as it is called, was originally very pronounced, 
including such features as prominent canines or “fighting teeth” in males 
and much smaller canines for the female. The disappearance of large 
male canines strongly suggests that the female of the species exercised 
a selection for sociable, sharing males. Most apes today have significantly 
longer and larger canines, male to female, in the absence of this female 
choice capacity (Zihlman 1981, Tanner 1981). 

Division of labor between the sexes is another key area in human 
beginnings, a condition once simply taken for granted and expressed by 
the term hunter-gatherer. Now it is widely accepted that gathering of 
plant foods, once thought to be the exclusive domain of women and of 
secondary importance to hunting by males, constituted the main food 
source (Johansen and Shreeve 1989). Since females were not significantly 
dependent on males for food (Hamilton 1984), it seems likely that rather 
than division of labor, flexibility and joint activity would have been central 
(Bender 1989). As Zihlman (1981) points out, an overall behavioral flexibility 
may have been the primary ingredient in early human existence. Joan Gero 
(1991) has demonstrated that stone tools were as likely to have been made 
by women as by men, and indeed Poirier (1987) reminds us that there is 
“no archaeological evidence supporting the contention that early humans 
exhibited a sexual division of labor.” It is unlikely that food collecting 
involved much, if any, division of labor (Slocum 1975) and probably that 
sexual specialization came quite late in human evolution (Zihlman 1981, 
Crader and Isaac 1981). 

So if the adaptation that began our species centered on gathering, 
when did hunting come in? Binford (1984) has argued that there is no 
indication of use of animal products (i.e. evidence of butchery practices) 
until the appearance, relatively quite recent, of anatomically modem 


Future Primitive Revisited 

humans. Electron microscope studies of fossil teeth found in East Africa 
(Walker 1984) suggest a diet composed primarily of fruit, while a similar 
examination of stone tools from a 1.5 million-year-old site at Koobi Fora 
in Kenya (Keeley and Toth 1981) shows that they were used on plant 
materials. The small amount of meat in the early Paleolithic diet was 
probably scavenged, rather than hunted (Ehrenberg 1989b). 

The “natural” condition of the species was evidently a diet made 
up largely of vegetables rich in fiber, as opposed to the modem high-fat 
and animal protein diet with its attendant chronic disorders (Mendeloff 
1977). Though our early forebears employed their “detailed knowledge of 
the environment and cognitive mapping” (Zihlman 1981) in the service 
of a plant-gathering subsistence, the archaeological evidence for hunting 
appears to slowly increase with time (Hodder 1991). 

Much evidence, however, has overturned assumptions as to 
widespread prehistoric hunting. Collections of bones seen earlier as 
evidence of large kills of mammals, for example, have turned out to be, upon 
closer examination, the results of movement by flowing water or caches 
by animals. Lewis Binford’s “Were There Elephant Hunters at Tooralba?” 
(1989) is a good instance of such a closer look, in which he doubts there was 
significant hunting until 200,000 years ago or sooner. Adrienne Zihlman 
(1981) has concluded that “hunting arose relatively late in evolution,” and 
“may not extend beyond the last one hundred thousand years.” And there 
are many (e.g. Straus 1986, Trinkhaus 1986) who do not see evidence for 
serious hunting of large mammals until even later, viz. the later Upper 
Paleolithic, just before the emergence of agriculture. 

The oldest known surviving artifacts are stone tools from Hadar in 
eastern Africa. With more refined dating methods, they may prove to be 
3.1 million years old (Klein 1989). Perhaps the main reason these may be 
classified as representing human effort is that they involve the crafting of 
one tool by using another, a uniquely human attribute so far as we know. 
Homo habilis, or “handy man,” designates what has been thought of as the 
first known human species, its name reflecting association with the earliest 
stone tools (Coppens 1989). Basic wooden and bone implements, though 
more perishable and thus scantily represented in the archaeological record, 
were also used by Homo habilis as part of a “remarkably simple and effective” 
adaptation in Africa and Asia (Fagan 1990). Our ancestors at this stage had 
smaller brains and bodies than we do, but Poirier (1987) notes that “their 


Future Primitive 

postcranial anatomy was rather like modem humans,” and Holloway (1972, 
1974) allows that his studies of cranial endocasts from this period indicate a 
basically modem brain organization. Similarly, tools older than two million 
years have been found to exhibit a consistent right-handed orientation in 
the ways stone has been flaked off in their formation. Right-handedness as 
a tendency is correlated in modems with such distinctly human features 
as pronounced lateralization of the brain and marked functional separation 
of the cerebral hemispheres (Holloway 1981a). Klein (1989) concludes that 
“basic human cognitive and communicational abilities are almost certainly 

Homo erectus is the other main predecessor to Homo sapiens, according 
to longstanding usage, appearing about 1.75 million years ago as humans 
moved out of forests into drier, more open African grasslands. Although 
brain size alone does not necessarily correlate with mental capacity, the 
cranial capacity of Homo erectus overlaps with that of modems such that 
this species “must have been capable of many of the same behaviors” 
(Ciochon, Olsen and Tames 1990). As Johanson and Edey (1981) put it, “If 
the largest-brained erectus were to be rated against the smallest-brained 
sapiens — all their other characteristics ignored — their species names would 
have to be reversed.” Homo Neanderthalus, which immediately preceded us, 
possessed brains somewhat larger than our own (Delson 1985, Holloway 
1985, Donald 1991). Though of course the much-maligned Neanderthal 
has been pictured as a primitive, brutish creature — in keeping with the 
prevailing Hobbesian ideology — despite manifest intelligence as well as 
enormous physical strength (Shreeve 1991). 

Recently, however, the whole species framework has become a 
doubtful proposition (Day 1987, Rightmire 1990). Attention has been 
drawn to the fact that fossil specimens from various Homo species “all show 
intermediate morphological traits,” leading to suspicion of an arbitrary 
division of humanity into separate taxa (Gingerich 1979, Tobias 1982). 
Fagan (1989), for example, tells us that “it is very hard to draw a clear 
taxonomic boundary between Homo erectus and archaic Homo sapiens on 
the one hand, and between archaic and anatomically modem Homo sapiens 
on the other.” Likewise, Foley (1989): “the anatomical distinctions between 
Homo erectus and Homo sapiens are not great.” Jelinek (1978) flatly declares 
that “there is no good reason, anatomical or cultural” for separating erectus 
and sapiens into two species, and has concluded (1980a) that people from 


future Primitive Revisited 

at least the Middle Paleolithic onward “may be viewed as Homo sapiens” (as 
does Hublin 1986). The tremendous upward revision of early intelligence, 
discussed below, must be seen as connected to the present confusion over 
species, as the once-prevailing overall evolutionary model gives way. 

But the controversy over species categorization is only interesting in 
the context of how our earliest forebears lived. Despite the minimal nature 
of what could be expected to survive so many millennia, we can glimpse 
some of the texture of that life, with its often elegant, pre-division of labor 
approaches. The “tool kit” from the Olduvai Gorge area made famous by 
the Leakeys contains “at least six clearly recognizable tool types” dating 
from about 1.7 million years ago (M. Leakey, 1978). There soon appeared 
the Acheulian handaxe, with its symmetrical beauty, in use for about a 
million years. Teardrop-shaped, and possessed of a remarkable balance, it 
exudes grace and utility from an era much prior to symbolization. Isaac 
(1986) noted that “the basic needs for sharp edges that humans have can 
be met from the varied range of forms generated from “Oldowan” patterns 
of stone flaking,” wondering how it came to be thought that “more complex 
equals better adapted.” In this distant early time, according to cut-marks 
found on surviving bones, humans were using scavenged animal sinews 
and skins for such things as cord, bags, and rugs (Gowlett 1984). Further 
evidence suggests furs for cave wall coverings and seats, and seaweed beds 
for sleeping (Butzer 1970). 

The use of fire goes back almost two million years (Kempe 1988) 
and might have appeared even earlier but for the tropical conditions of 
humanity’s original African homeland, as Poirier (1987) implies. Perfected 
fire-making included the firing of caves to eliminate insects and heated 
pebble floors (Perles 1975, Lumley 1976), amenities that show up very early 
in the Paleolithic. 

As John Gowlett (1986) notes, there are still some archaeologists 
who consider anything earlier than Homo sapiens, a mere 30,000 years 
ago, as greatly more primitive than we “fully human” types. But along with 
the documentation, referred to above, of fundamentally “modem” brain 
anatomy even in early humans, this minority must now contend with recent 
work depicting complete human intelligence as present virtually with the 
birth of the Homo species. Thomas Wynn (1985) judged manufacture of 
the Acheulian handaxe to have required “a stage of intelligence that is 
typical of fully modem adults.” Gowlett, like Wynn, examines the required 



“operational thinking” involved in the right hammer, the right force and the 
right striking angle, in an ordered sequence and with flexibility needed for 
modifying the procedure. He contends that manipulation, concentration, 
visualization of form in three dimensions, and planning were needed, and 
that these requirements “were the common property of early human beings 
as much as two million years ago, and this,” he adds, “is hard knowledge, 
not speculation.” 

During the vast time-span of the Paleolithic, there were remarkably 
few changes in technology (Rolland 1990). Innovation, “over 2 1/2 million 
years measured in stone tool development was practically nil,” according to 
Gerhard Kraus (1990). Seen in the light of what we now know of prehistoric 
intelligence, such “stagnation” is especially vexing to many social scientists. 
“It is difficult to comprehend such slow development,” in the judgment of 
Wymer (1989). It strikes me as very plausible that intelligence, informed 
by the success and satisfaction of a gatherer-hunter existence, is the 
very reason for the pronounced absence of “progress.” Division of labor, 
domestication, symbolic culture — these were evidently refused until very 

Contemporary thought, in its postmodern incarnation, would like to 
rule out the reality of a divide between nature and culture; given the abilities 
present among people before civilization, however, it may be more accurate 
to say that basically, they long chose nature over culture. It is also popular 
to see almost every human act or object as symbolic (e.g. Botscharow 1989), 
a position which is, generally speaking, part of the denial of a nature versus 
culture distinction. But it is culture as the manipulation of basic symbolic 
forms that is involved here. It also seems clear that reified time, language 
(written, certainly, and probably spoken language for all or most of this 
period), number, and art had no place, despite an intelligence fully capable 
of them. 

I would like to interject, in passing, my agreement with Goldschmidt 
(1990) that “the hidden dimension in the construction of the symbolic 
world is time.” And as Norman 0. Brown put it, “life not repressed is not 
in historical time,” which I take as a reminder that time as a materiality 
is not inherent in reality, but a cultural imposition, perhaps the first 
cultural imposition, on it. As this elemental dimension of symbolic culture 
progresses, so does, by equal steps, alienation from the natural. 

Cohen (1974) has discussed symbols as “essential for the development 



and maintenance of social order.” Which implies — as does, more forcefully, a 
great deal of positive evidence — that before the emergence of symbols there 
was no condition of disorder requiring them. In a similar vein, Levi-Strauss 
(1953) pointed out that “mythical thought always progresses from the 
awareness of oppositions toward their resolution.” So whence the absence 
of order, the conflicts or “oppositions?” The literature on the Paleolithic 
contains almost nothing that deals with this essential question, among 
thousands of monographs on specific features. A reasonable hypothesis, 
in my opinion, is that division of labor, unnoticed because of its glacially 
slow pace, and not sufficiently understood because of its newness, began to 
cause small fissures in the human community and unhealthy practices vis- 
a-vis nature. In the later Upper Paleolithic, “15,000 years ago, we begin to 
observe specialized collection of plants in the Middle East, and specialized 
hunting,” observed Gowlett (1984). The sudden appearance of symbolic 
activities (e.g. ritual and art) in the Upper Paleolithic has definitely seemed to 
archaeologists one of prehistory’s “big surprises” (Binford 1972b), given the 
absence of such behaviors in the Middle Paleolithic (Foster 1990, Kozlowski 
1990). But signs of division of labor and specialization were making their 
presence felt as a breakdown of wholeness and natural order, a lack that 
needed redressing. What is surprising is that this transition to civilization 
can still be seen as benign. Foster (1990) seems to celebrate it by concluding 
that the “symbolic mode...has proved extraordinarily adaptive, else why 
has Homo sapiens become material master of the world?” He is certainly 
correct, as he is to recognize “the manipulation of symbols [to be] the very 
stuff of culture,” but he appears oblivious to the fact that this successful 
adaptation has brought alienation and destruction of nature along to their 
present horrifying prominence. 

It is reasonable to assume that the symbolic world originated in 
the formulation of language, which somehow appeared from a “matrix of 
extensive nonverbal communication” (Tanner and Zihlman 1976) and face- 
to-face contact. There is no agreement as to when language began, but no 
evidence exists of speech before the cultural “explosion” of the later Upper 
Paleolithic (Dibble 1984, 1989). It seems to have acted as an “inhibiting 
agent,” a way of bringing life under “greater control” (Mumford 1972), 
stemming the flood of images and sensations to which the pre-modem 
individual was open. In this sense it would have likely marked an early 
turning away from a life of openness and communion with nature, toward 



one more oriented to the overlordship and domestication that followed 
symbolic culture’s inauguration. It is probably a mistake, by the way, to 
assume that thought is advanced (if there were such a thing as “neutral” 
thought, whose advance could be universally appreciated) because we 
actually think in language; there is no conclusive evidence that we must do 
so (Allport 1983). There are many cases (Lecours and Joanette 1980, Levine 
et al. 1982), involving stroke and like impairments, of patients who have 
lost speech, including the ability to talk silently to themselves, who were 
fully capable of coherent thought of all kinds. These data strongly suggest 
that “human intellectual skill is uniquely powerful, even in the absence of 
language” (Donald 1991). 

In terms of symbolization in action, Goldschmidt (1990) seems correct 
in judging that “the Upper Paleolithic invention of ritual may well have 
been the keystone in the structure of culture that gave it its great impetus 
for expansion.” Ritual has played a number of pivotal roles in what Hodder 
(1990) termed “the relentless unfolding of symbolic and social structures” 
accompanying the arrival of cultural mediation. It was as a means of achieving 
and consolidating social cohesion that ritual was essential (Johnson 1982, 
Conkey 1985); totemic rituals, for example, reinforce clan unity. 

The start of an appreciation of domestication, or taming of nature, 
is seen in a cultural ordering of the wild, through ritual. Evidently, the 
female as a cultural category, viz. seen as wild or dangerous, dates from 
this period. The ritual “Venus” figurines appear as of 25,000 years ago, 
and seem to be an example of earliest symbolic likeness of women for the 
purpose of representation and control (Hodder 1990). Even more concretely, 
subjugation of the wild occurs at this time in the first systematic hunting 
of large mammals; ritual was an integral part of this activity (Hammond 
1974, Frison 1986). 

Ritual, as shamanic practice, may also be considered as a regression 
from that state in which all shared a consciousness we would now classify 
as extrasensory (Leonard 1972). When specialists alone claim access to such 
perceptual heights as may have once been communal, further backward 
moves in division of labor are facilitated or enhanced. The way back to 
bliss through ritual is a virtually universal mythic theme, promising the 
dissolution of measurable time, among other joys. This theme of ritual 
points to an absence that it falsely claims to fill, as does symbolic culture 
in general. 


Future Primitive Revisited 

Ritual as a means of organizing emotions, a method of cultural 
direction and restraint, introduces art, a facet of ritual expressiveness 
(Bender 1989). “There can be little doubt,” to Gans (1985), “that the 
various forms of secular art derive originally from ritual.” We can detect 
the beginning of an unease, a feeling that an earlier, direct authenticity 
is departing. La Barre (1972), I believe, is correct in judging that “art and 
religion alike arise from unsatisfied desire.” At first, more abstractly as 
language, then more purposively as ritual and art, culture steps in to deal 
artificially with spiritual and social anxiety. 

Ritual and magic must have dominated early (Upper Paleolithic) art 
and were probably essential, along with an increasing division of labor, 
for the coordination and direction of community (Wymer 1981). Similarly, 
Pfeiffer (1982) has depicted the famous Upper Paleolithic European cave 
paintings as the original form of initiating youth into now complex social 
systems; as necessary for order and discipline (see also Gamble 1982, 
Jochim 1983). And art may have contributed to the control of nature, as 
part of development of the earliest territorialism, for example (Straus 

The emergence of symbolic culture, with its inherent will to 
manipulate and control, soon opened the door to domestication of nature. 
After two million years of human life within the bounds of nature, in 
balance with other wild species, agriculture changed our lifestyle, our way 
of adapting, in an unprecedented way. Never before has such a radical 
change occurred in a species so utterly and so swiftly (Pfeiffer 1977). Self- 
domestication through language, ritual, and art inspired the taming of 
plants and animals that followed. Appearing only 10,000 years ago, farming 
quickly triumphed; for control, by its very nature, invites intensification. 
Once the will to production broke through, it became more productive the 
more efficiently it was exercised, and hence more ascendant and adaptive. 

Agriculture enables greatly increased division of labor, establishes 
the material foundations of social hierarchy, and initiates environmental 
destruction. Priests, kings, drudgery, sexual inequality, warfare are a few 
of its fairly immediate specific consequences (Ehrenberg 1986b, Wymer 
1981, Festinger 1983). Whereas Paleolithic peoples enjoyed a highly varied 
diet, using several thousand species of plants for food, with farming these 
sources were vastly reduced (White 1959, Gouldie 1986). 

Given the intelligence and the very great practical knowledge of Stone 


future Primitive 

Age humanity, the question has often been asked, “Why didn’t agriculture 
begin, at say, 1,000,000 B.C. rather than about 8,000 B.C.?” I have provided 
a brief answer in terms of slowly accelerating alienation in the form of 
division of labor and symbolization, but given how negative the results were, 
it is still a bewildering phenomenon. Thus, as Binford (1968) put it, “The 
question to be asked is not why agriculture... was not developed everywhere, 
but why it was developed at all.” The end of gatherer-hunter life brought a 
decline in size, stature, and skeletal robusticity (Cohen and Armelagos 1981, 
Harris and Ross 1981), and introduced tooth decay, nutritional deficiencies, 
and most infectious diseases (Larsen 1982, Buikstra 1976a, Cohen 1981). 
“Taken as a overall decline in the quality — and probably the 
length — of human life,” concluded Cohen and Armelagos (1981). 

Another outcome was the invention of number, unnecessary before 
the ownership of crops, animals, and land that is one of agriculture’s 
hallmarks. The development of number further impelled the urge to 
treat nature as something to be dominated. Writing was also required 
by domestication, for the earliest business transactions and political 
administration (Larsen 1988). Levi-Strauss has argued persuasively 
that the primary function of written communication was to facilitate 
exploitation and subjugation (1955); cities and empires, for example, would 
be impossible without it. Here we see clearly the joining of the logic of 
symbolization and the growth of capital. 

Conformity, repetition, and regularity were the keys to civilization 
upon its triumph, replacing the spontaneity, enchantment, and discovery 
of the pre-agricultural human state that survived so very long. Clark (1979) 
cites a gatherer-hunter “amplitude of leisure,” deciding “it was this and 
the pleasurable way of life that went with it, rather than penury and a 
day-long grind, that explains why social life remained so static.” One of the 
most enduring and widespread myths is that there was once a Golden Age, 
characterized by peace and innocence, and that something happened to 
destroy this idyll and consign us to misery and suffering. Eden, or whatever 
name it goes by, was the home of our primeval forager ancestors, and 
expresses the yearning of disillusioned tillers of the soil for a lost life of 
freedom and relative ease. 

The once rich environs people inhabited prior to domestication 
and agriculture are now virtually nonexistent. For the few remaining 
foragers there exist only the most marginal lands, those isolated places as 


Future Primitive Revisited 

yet unwanted by agriculture. And surviving gatherer-hunters, who have 
somehow managed to evade civilization’s tremendous pressures to turn 
them into slaves (i.e. farmers, political subjects, wage laborers), have all 
been influenced by contact with outside peoples (Lee 1976, Mithen 1990). 

Duffy (1984) points out that the present-day gatherer-hunters 
he studied, the Mbuti Pygmies of central Africa, have been acculturated 
by surrounding villager-agriculturalists for hundreds of years, and to 
some extent, by generations of contact with government authorities and 
missionaries. And yet it seems that an impulse toward authentic life can 
survive down through the ages: “Try to imagine,” he counsels, “a way of 
life where land, shelter, and food are free, and where there are no leaders, 
bosses, politics, organized crime, taxes, or laws. Add to this the benefits 
of being part of a society where everything is shared, where there are no 
rich people and no poor people, and where happiness does not mean the 
accumulation of material possessions.” The Mbuti have never domesticated 
animals or planted crops. 

Among the members of non-agriculturalist bands resides a highly 
sane combination of little work and material abundance. Bodley (1976) 
discovered that the San (a.k.a. Bushmen) of the harsh Kalahari Desert of 
southern Africa work fewer hours, and fewer of their number work, than do 
the neighboring cultivators. In times of drought, moreover, it has been the 
San to whom the farmers have turned for their survival (Lee 1968). They 
spend “strikingly little time laboring and much time at rest and leisure,” 
according to Tanaka (1980), while others (e.g. Marshall 1976, Guenther 
1976) have commented on San vitality and freedom compared with 
sedentary farmers, their relatively secure and easygoing life. 

Flood (1983) noted that to Australian aborigines “the labour involved 
in tilling and planting outweighed the possible advantages.” Speaking 
more generally, Tanaka (1976) has pointed to the abundant and stable 
plant foods in the society of early humanity, just as “they exist in every 
modem gatherer society.” Likewise, Festinger (1983) referred to Paleolithic 
access to “considerable food without a great deal of effort,” adding that 
“contemporary groups that still live on hunting and gathering do very well, 
even though they have been pushed into very marginal habitats.” 

As Hole and Flannery (1963) summarized: “No group on earth has 
more leisure time than hunters and gatherers, who spend it primarily 
on games, conversation and relaxing.” They have much more free time, 


Future primitive 

adds Binford (1968), “than do modem industrial or farm workers, or even 
professors of archaeology.” 

The non-domesticated know that, as Vaneigem (1975) put it, only 
the present can be total. This by itself means that they live life with 
incomparably greater immediacy, density and passion than we do. It has 
been said that some revolutionary days are worth centuries; until then “We 
look before and after,” as Shelley wrote, “And sigh for what is not....” 

The Mbuti believe (Turnbull 1976) that “by a correct fulfillment of 
the present, the past and the future will take care of themselves.” Primitive 
peoples do not live through memories, and generally have no interest in 
birthdays or measuring their ages (Cipriani 1966). As for the future, they 
have little desire to control what does not yet exist, just as they have 
little desire to control nature. Their moment-by-moment joining with the 
flux and flow of the natural world does not preclude an awareness of the 
seasons, but this does not constitute an alienated time consciousness that 
robs them of the present. 

Though contemporary gatherer-hunters eat more meat than their 
pre-historic forebears, vegetable foods still constitute the mainstay of their 
diet in tropical and subtropical regions (Lee 1968a, Yellen and Lee 1976). 
Both the Kalahari San and the Hazda of East Africa, where game is more 
abundant than in the Kalahari, rely on gathering for 80 percent of their 
sustenance (Tanaka 1980). The IKung branch of the San search for more 
than a hundred different kinds of plants (Thomas 1968) and exhibit no 
nutritional deficiency (Truswell and Hansen 1976). This is similar to the 
healthful, varied diet of Australian foragers (Fisher 1982, Flood 1983). The 
overall diet of gatherers is better than that of cultivators, starvation is very 
rare, and their health status generally superior, with much less chronic 
disease (Lee and Devore 1968a, Ackerman 1990). 

Lauren van der Post (1958) expressed wonder at the exuberant San 
laugh, which rises “sheer from the stomach, a laugh you never hear among 
civilized people.” He found this emblematic of a great vigor and clarity of 
senses that yet manages to withstand and elude the onslaught of civilization. 
Truswell and Hansen (1976) may have encountered it in the person of a San 
who had survived an unarmed fight with a leopard; although injured, he 
had killed the animal with his bare hands. 

The Andaman Islanders, west of Thailand, have no leaders, no idea 
of symbolic representation, and no domesticated animals. There is also 


Future Primitive Revisited 

an absence of aggression, violence, and disease; wounds heal surprisingly 
quickly, and their sight and hearing are particularly acute. They are said 
to have declined since European intrusion in the mid-nineteenth century, 
but exhibit other such remarkable physical traits as a natural immunity to 
malaria, skin with sufficient elasticity to rule out post-childbirth stretch 
marks and the wrinkling we associate with aging, and an “unbelievable” 
strength of teeth: Cipriani (1966) reported seeing children of 10 to 15 
years crush nails with them. He also testified to the Andamese practice 
of collecting honey with no protective clothing at all; “yet they are never 
stung, and watching them one felt in the presence of some age-old mystery, 
lost by the civilized world.” 

DeVries (1952) has cited a wide range of contrasts by which the 
superior health of gatherer-hunters can be established, including an 
absence of degenerative diseases and mental disabilities, and childbirth 
without difficulty or pain. He also points out that this begins to erode from 
the moment of contact with civilization. 

Relatedly, there is a great deal of evidence not only for physical and 
emotional vigor among primitives but also concerning their heightened 
sensory abilities. Darwin described people at the southernmost tip of South 
America who went about almost naked in frigid conditions, while Peasley 
(1983) observed Aborigines who were renowned for their ability to live 
through bitterly cold desert nights “without any form of clothing.” Levi- 
Strauss (1979) was astounded to leam of a particular [South American] 
tribe which was able to “see the planet Venus in full daylight,” a feat 
comparable to that of the North African Dogon who consider Sirius B the 
most important star; somehow aware, without instruments, of a star that 
can only be found with the most powerful of telescopes (Temple 1976). In 
this vein, Boyden (1970) recounted the Bushman ability to see four of the 
moons of Jupiter with the naked eye. 

In The Harmless People (1959), Marshall told how one Bushman 
walked unerringly to a spot in a vast plain, “with no bush or tree to mark 
place,” and pointed out a blade of grass with an almost invisible filament 
of vine around it. He had encountered it months before in the rainy season 
when it was green. Now, in parched weather, he dug there to expose a 
succulent root and quenched his thirst. Also in the Kalahari Desert, van 
der Post (1958) meditated upon San/Bushman communion with nature, 
a level of experience that “could almost be called mystical. For instance, 


Future Primitive 

they seemed to know what it actually felt like to be an elephant, a lion, 
an antelope, a steenbuck, a lizard, a striped mouse, mantis, baobab tree, 
yellow-crested cobra or starry-eyed amaryllis, to mention only a few of the 
brilliant multitudes through which they moved.” It seems almost pedestrian 
to add that gatherer-hunters have often been remarked to possess tracking 
skills that virtually defy rational explanation (e.g. Lee 1979). 

Rohrlich-Leavitt (1976) noted, “The data show that gatherer- 
hunters are generally nonterritorial and bilocal; reject group aggression 
and competition; share their resources freely; value egalitarianism and 
personal autonomy in the context of group cooperation; and are indulgent 
and loving with children.” Dozens of studies stress communal sharing and 
egalitarianism as perhaps the defining traits of such groups (e.g. Marshall 
1961 and 1976, Sahlins 1968, Pilbeam 1972, Damas 1972, Diamond 1974, 
Lafitau 1974, Tanaka 1976 and 1980, Wiessner 1977, Morris 1982, Riches 
1982, Smith 1988, Mithen 1990). Lee (1982) referred to the “universality 
among foragers” of sharing, while Marshall’s classic 1961 work spoke of 
the “ethic of generosity and humility” informing a “strongly egalitarian” 
gatherer-hunter orientation. Tanaka provides a typical example: “The most 
admired character trait is generosity, and the most despised and disliked 
are stinginess and selfishness.” 

Baer (1986) listed “egalitarianism, democracy, personalism, individ- 
uation, nurturance” as key virtues of the non-civilized, and Lee (1988) cited 
“an absolute aversion to rank distinctions” among “simple foraging peoples 
around the world.” Leacock and Lee (1982) specified that “any assumption 
of authority” within the group “leads to ridicule or anger among the IKung, 
as has been recorded for the Mbuti (Turnbull 1962), the Hazda (Woodbum 
1980) and the Montagnais-Naskapi (Thwaites 1906), among others.” 

“Not even the father of an extended family can tell his sons and 
daughters what to do. Most people appear to operate on their own internal 
schedules,” reported Lee (1972) of the IKung of Botswana. Ingold (1987) 
judged that “in most hunting and gathering societies, a supreme value 
is placed upon the principle of individual autonomy,” similar to Wilson’s 
finding (1988) of “an ethic of independence” that is “common to the focused 
open societies.” The esteemed field anthropologist Radin (1953) went so far 
as to say: “Free scope is allowed for every conceivable kind of personality 
outlet or expression in primitive society. No moral judgment is passed on 
any aspect of human personality as such.” 


Future Primitive Revisited 

Turnbull (1976) looked on the structure of Mbuti social life as “an 
apparent vacuum, a lack of internal system that is almost anarchical.” 
According to Duffy (1984), “the Mbuti are naturally acephalous — they do 
not have leaders or rulers, and decisions concerning the band are made by 
consensus.” There is an enormous qualitative difference between foragers 
and farmers in this regard, as in so many others. For instance, agricultural 
Bantu tribes (e.g. the Saga) surround the San, and are organized by kingship, 
hierarchy and work; the San exhibit egalitarianism, autonomy, and sharing. 
Domestication is the principle which accounts for this drastic distinction. 

Domination within a society is not unrelated to domination of nature. 
In gatherer-hunter societies, on the other hand, no strict hierarchy exists 
between the human and the non-human species (Noske 1989), and relations 
among foragers are likewise non-hierarchical. The non-domesticated 
typically view the animals they hunt as equals; this essentially egalitarian 
relationship is ended by the advent of domestication. 

When progressive estrangement from nature became outright social 
control (agriculture), more than just social attitudes changed. Descriptions 
by sailors and explorers who arrived in “newly discovered” regions tell how 
wild mammals and birds originally showed no fear at all of the human 
invaders (Brock 1981). A few contemporary gatherers practiced no hunting 
before outside contact, but while the majority certainly do hunt, “it is 
not normally an aggressive act” (Rohrlich-Leavitt 1976). Turnbull (1965) 
observed Mbuti hunting as quite without any aggressive spirit, even 
carried out with a sort of regret. Hewitt (1986) reported a sympathy bond 
between hunter and hunted among the Xan Bushmen he encountered in 
the nineteenth century. 

As regards violence among gatherer-hunters, Lee (1988) found that 
“the IKung hate fighting, and think anybody who fought would be stupid.” 
The Mbuti, by Duffy’s account (1984), “look on any form of violence between 
one person and another with great abhorrence and distaste, and never 
represent it in their dancing or playacting.” Homicide and suicide, concluded 
Bodley (1976), are both “decidedly uncommon” among undisturbed gatherer- 
hunters. The “warlike” nature of Native American peoples was often 
fabricated to add legitimacy to European aims of conquest (Kroeber 1961); 
the foraging Comanche maintained their nonviolent ways for centuries 
before the European invasion, becoming violent only upon contact with 
marauding civilization (Fried 1973). 



The development of symbolic culture, which rapidly led to 
agriculture, is linked through ritual to alienated social life among extant 
foraging groups. Bloch (1977) found a correlation between levels of ritual 
and hierarchy. Put negatively, Woodbum (1968) could see the connection 
between an absence of ritual and the absence of specialized roles and 
hierarchy among the Hazda of Tanzania. Turner’s study of the west African 
Ndembu (1957) revealed a profusion of ritual structures and ceremonies 
intended to redress the conflicts arising from the breakdown of an earlier, 
more seamless society. These ceremonies and structures function in a 
politically integrative way. Ritual is a repetitive activity for which outcomes 
and responses are essentially assured by social contract; it conveys the 
message that symbolic practice, via group membership and social rules, 
provides control (Cohen 1985). Ritual fosters the concept of control or 
domination, and has been seen to tend toward leadership roles (Hitchcock 
1982) and centralized political structures (Lourandos 1985). A monopoly 
of ceremonial institutions clearly extends the concept of authority (Bender 
1978), and may itself be the original formal authority. 

Among agricultural tribes of New Guinea, leadership and the 
inequality it implies are based upon participation in hierarchies of ritual 
initiation or upon shamanistic spirit-mediumship (Kelly 1977, Modjeska 
1982). In the role of shamans we see a concrete practice of ritual as it 
contributes to domination in human society. 

Radin (1937) discussed “the same marked tendency” among Asian 
and North American tribal peoples for shamans or medicine men “to 
organize and develop the theory that they alone are in communication 
with the supernatural.” This exclusive access seems to empower them at 
the expense of the rest; Lommel (1967) saw “an increase in the shaman’s 
psychic potency... counterbalanced by a weakening of potency in other 
members of the group.” This practice has fairly obvious implications for 
power relationships in other areas of life, and contrasts with earlier periods 
devoid of religious leadership. 

The Batuque of Brazil are host to shamans who each claim control 
over certain spirits and attempt to sell supernatural services to clients, 
rather like priests of competing sects (S. Leacock 1988). Specialists of this 
type in “magically controlling nature...would naturally come to control 
men, too,” in the opinion of Muller (1961). In fact, the shaman is often the 
most powerful individual in pre-agricultural societies (e.g. Sheehan 1985); 



he is in a position to institute change. Johannessen (1987) offers the thesis 
that resistance to the innovation of planting was overcome by the influence 
of shamans, among the Indians of the American Southwest, for instance. 
Similarly, Marquardt (1985) has suggested that ritual authority structures 
have played an important role in the initiation and organization of 
production in North America. Another student of American groups (Ingold 
1987) saw an important connection between shamans” role in mastering 
wildness in nature and an emerging subordination of women. 

Bemdt (1974a) has discussed the importance among Aborigines of 
ritual sexual division of labor in the development of negative sex roles, while 
Randolph (1988) comes straight to the point: “Ritual activity is needed to 
create “proper” men and women.” There is “no reason in nature” for gender 
divisions, argues Bender (1989). “They have to be created by proscription 
and taboo, they have to be “naturalized” through ideology and ritual.” 

But gatherer-hunter societies, by their very nature, deny ritual 
its potential to domesticate women. The structure (non-structure?) of 
egalitarian bands, even those most oriented toward hunting, includes a 
guarantee of autonomy to both sexes. This guarantee is the fact that the 
materials of subsistence are equally available to women and men and 
that, further, the success of the band is dependent on cooperation based 
on that autonomy (Leacock 1978, Friedl 1975). The spheres of the sexes 
are often somewhat separate, but inasmuch as the contribution of women 
is generally at least equal to that of men, social equality of the sexes is “a 
key feature of forager societies” (Ehrenberg 1989b). Many anthropologists, 
in fact, have found the status of women in forager groups to be higher than 
in any other type of society (e.g. Fluer-Lobban 1979, Rohrlich-Leavitt, Sykes 
and Weatherford 1975, Leacock 1978). 

In all major decisions, observed Turnbull (1970) of the Mbuti, “men and 
women have equal say, hunting and gathering being equally important.” He 
made it clear (1981) that there is sexual differentiation — probably a good 
deal more than was the case with their distant forebears — “but without any 
sense of superordination or subordination.” Men actually work more hours 
than women among the !Kung, according to Post and Taylor (1984). 

It should be added, in terms of the division of labor common among 
contemporary gatherer-hunters, that this differentiation of roles is by no 
means universal. Nor was it when the Roman historian Tacitus wrote, of 
the Fenni of the Baltic region, that “the women support themselves by 


Future primitive 

hunting, exactly like the men.. .and count their lot happier than that of 
others who groan over field labor.” Or when Procopius found, in the sixth 
century A.D., that the Serithifinni of what is now Finland “neither till the 
land themselves, nor do their women work it for them, but the women 
regularly join the men in hunting.” 

The Tiwi women of Melville Island regularly hunt (Martin and 
Voorhies 1975) as do the Agta women in the Philippines (Estioko-Griffen 
and Griffen 1981). In Mbuti society, “there is little specialization according 
to sex. Even the hunt is a joint effort,” reports Turnbull (1962), and Cotlow 
(1971) testifies that “among the traditional Eskimos it is (or was) a 
cooperative enterprise for the whole family group.” 

Darwin (1871) found another aspect of sexual equality: “ utterly 
barbarous tribes the women have more power in choosing, rejecting, and 
tempting their lovers, or of afterwards changing their husbands, than 
might have been expected.” The !Kung Bushmen and Mbuti exemplify 
this female autonomy, as reported by Marshall (1959) and Thomas (1965); 
“Women apparently leave a man whenever they are unhappy with their 
marriage,” concluded Begler (1978). Marshall (1970) also found that rape 
was extremely rare or absent among the IKung. 

An intriguing phenomenon concerning gatherer-hunter women is 
their ability to prevent pregnancy in the absence of any contraception 
(Silberbauer 1981). Many hypotheses have been put forth and debunked, 
e.g. conception somehow related to levels of body fat (Frisch 1974, 
Leibowitz 1986). What seems a very plausible explanation is based on the 
fact that undomesticated people are very much more in tune with their 
physical selves. Foraging women’s senses and processes are not alienated 
from themselves or dulled; control over childbearing is probably less than 
mysterious to those whose bodies are not foreign objects to be acted upon. 

The Pygmies of Zaire celebrate the first menstrual period of every 
girl with a great festival of gratitude and rejoicing (Turnbull 1962). The 
young woman feels pride and pleasure, and the entire band expresses its 
happiness. Among agricultural villagers, however, a menstruating woman 
is regarded as unclean and dangerous, to be quarantined by taboo (Duffy 
1984). The relaxed, egalitarian relationship between San men and women, 
with its flexibility of roles and mutual respect impressed Draper (1971, 
1972, 1975); a relationship, she made clear, that endures as long as they 
remain gatherer-hunters and no longer. 


Future Primitive Revisited 

Duffy (1984) found that each child in an Mbuti camp calls every man 
father and every woman mother. Forager children receive far more care, 
time, and attention than do those in civilization’s isolated nuclear families. 
Post and Taylor (1984) described the “almost permanent contact” with 
their mothers and other adults that Bushman children enjoy. !Kung infants 
studied by Ainsworth (1967) showed marked precocity of early cognitive 
and motor skills development. This was attributed both to the exercise and 
stimulation produced by unrestricted freedom of movement, and to the 
high degree of physical warmth and closeness between !Kung parents and 
children (see also Konner 1976). 

Draper (1976) could see that “competitiveness in games is almost 
entirely lacking among the !Kung,” as Shostack (1976) observed “!Kung boys 
and girls playing together and sharing most games.” She also found that 
children are not prevented from experimental sex play, consonant with the 
freedom of older Mbuti youth to “indulge in premarital sex with enthusiasm 
and delight” (Turnbull 1981). The Zuni “have no sense of sin,” Ruth Benedict 
(1946) wrote in a related vein. “Chastity as a way of life is regarded with 
great disfavor...Pleasant relations between the sexes are merely one aspect 
of pleasant relations with human beings. ..Sex is an incident in a happy life.” 

Coontz and Henderson (1986) point to a growing body of evidence 
in support of the proposition that relations between the sexes are most 
egalitarian in the simplest foraging societies. Women play an essential 
role in traditional agriculture, but receive no corresponding status for their 
contribution, unlike the case of gatherer-hunter society (Chevillard and 
Leconte 1986, Whyte 1978). As with plants and animals, so are women 
subject to domestication with the coming of agriculture. Culture, securing 
its foundations with the new order, requires the firm subjugation of instinct, 
freedom, and sexuality. All disorder must be banished, the elemental and 
spontaneous taken firmly in hand. Women’s creativity and their very being 
as sexual persons are pressured to give way to the role, expressed in all 
peasant religions, of Great Mother, that is, fecund breeder of men and food. 

The men of the South American Munduruc, a farming tribe, refer 
to plants and sex in the same phrase about subduing women: “We tame 
them with the banana” (Murphy and Murphy 1985). Simone de Beauvoir 
(1949) recognized in the equation of the plow and the phallus a symbol 
of male authority over women. Among the Amazonian Jivaro, another 
agricultural group, women are beasts of burden and the personal property 


Future primitive 

of men (Hamer 1972); the “abduction of adult women is a prominent part 
of much warfare” by these lowland South American tribes (Ferguson 1988). 
Brutalization and isolation of women seem to be functions of agricultural 
societies (Gregor 1988), and the female continues to perform most or even 
all of the work in such groups (Morgan 1985). 

Head-hunting is practiced by the above-mentioned groups, as part 
of endemic warfare over coveted agricultural land (Lathrap 1970); head- 
hunting and near-constant warring is also witnessed among the farming 
tribes of Highlands New Guinea (Watson 1970). Lenski and Lenski’s 1974 
researches concluded that warfare is rare among foragers but becomes 
extremely common with agrarian societies. As Wilson (1988) put it 
succinctly, “Revenge, feuds, rioting, warfare and battle seem to emerge 
among, and to be typical of, domesticated peoples.” 

Tribal conflicts, Godelier (1977) argues, are “explainable primarily 
by reference to colonial domination” and should not be seen as having 
an origin “in the functioning of pre-colonial structures.” Certainly contact 
with civilization can have an unsettling, degenerative effect, but Godelier’s 
Marxism (viz. unwillingness to question domestication/production), is, one 
suspects, relevant to such a judgment. Thus it could be said that the Copper 
Eskimos, who have a significant incidence of homicide within their group 
(Damas 1972), owe this violence to the impact of outside influences, but 
their reliance on domesticated dogs should also be noted. 

Arens (1979) has asserted, paralleling Godelier to some extent, 
that cannibalism as a cultural phenomenon is a fiction, invented and 
promoted by agencies of outside conquest. But there is documentation 
of this practice (e.g. Poole 1983, Tuzin 1976) among, once again, peoples 
involved in domestication. The studies by Hogg (1966), for example, reveal 
its presence among certain African tribes, steeped in ritual and grounded in 
agriculture. Cannibalism is generally a form of cultural control of chaos, in 
which the victim represents animality, or all that should be tamed (Sanday 
1986). Significantly, one of the important myths of Fiji Islanders, “How the 
Fijians first became cannibals,” is literally a tale of planting (Sahlins 1983). 
Similarly, the highly domesticated and time-conscious Aztecs practiced 
human sacrifice as a gesture to tame unruly forces and uphold the social 
equilibrium of a very alienated society. As Norbeck (1961) pointed out, non- 
domesticated, “culturally impoverished” societies are devoid of cannibalism 
and human sacrifice. 


Future Primitive Revisited 

As for one of the basic underpinnings of violence in more complex 
societies, Barnes (1970) found that “reports in the ethnographic literature of 
territorial struggles” between gatherer-hunters are “extremely rare.” !Kung 
boundaries are vague and undefended (Lee 1979); Pandaram territories 
overlap, and individuals go where they please (Morris 1982); Hazda move 
freely from region to region (Woodbum 1968); boundaries and trespass have 
little or no meaning to the Mbuti (Turnbull 1966); and Australian Aborigines 
reject territorial or social demarcations (Gumpert 1981, Hamilton 1982). An 
ethic of generosity and hospitality takes the place of exclusivity (Steward 
1968, Hiatt 1968). 

Gatherer-hunter peoples have developed “no conception of private 
property,” in the estimation of Kitwood (1984). As noted above in reference 
to sharing, and with Sansom’s (1980) characterization of Aborigines as 
“people without property,” foragers do not share civilization’s obsession 
with externals. 

“Mine and thine, the seeds of all mischief, have no place with them,” 
wrote Pietro (1511) of the native North Americans encountered on the 
second voyage of Columbus. The Bushmen have “no sense of possession,” 
according to Post (1958), and Lee (1972) saw them making “no sharp 
dichotomy between the resources of the natural environment and the 
social wealth.” There is a line between nature and culture, again, and the 
non-civilized choose the former. 

There are many gatherer-hunters who could carry all that they 
make use of in one hand, who die with pretty much what they had as they 
came into the world. Once humans shared everything; with agriculture, 
ownership becomes paramount and a species presumes to own the world. A 
deformation the imagination could scarcely equal. 

Sahlins (1972) spoke of this eloquently: “The world’s most primitive 
people have few possessions, but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain 
small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; 
above all, it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such 
it is the invention of civilization.” 

The “common tendency” of gatherer-hunters “to reject farming until it 
was absolutely thrust upon them” (Bodley 1976) bespeaks a nature/culture 
divide also present in the Mbuti recognition that if one of them becomes a 
villager he is no longer an Mbuti (Turnbull 1976). They know that forager 
band and agriculturalist village are opposed societies with opposed values. 



At times, however, the crucial factor of domestication can be lost 
sight of. “The historic foraging populations of the Western Coast of North 
America have long been considered anomalous among foragers," declared 
Cohen (1981); as Kelly (1991) also put it, “tribes of the Northwest Coast 
break all the stereotypes of hunter-gatherers.” These foragers, whose 
main sustenance is fishing, have exhibited such alienated features as 
chiefs, hierarchy, warfare and slavery. But almost always overlooked are 
their domesticated tobacco and domesticated dogs. Even this celebrated 
“anomaly” contains features of domestication. Its practice, from ritual to 
production, with various accompanying forms of domination, seems to 
anchor and promote the facets of decline from an earlier state of grace. 

Thomas (1981) provides another North American example, that of the 
Great Basin Shoshones and three of their component societies, the Kawich 
Mountain Shoshones, Reese River Shoshones, and Owens Valley Paiutes. 
The three groups showed distinctly different levels of agriculture, with 
increasing territoriality or ownership and hierarchy closely corresponding 
to higher degrees of domestication. 

To “define” a disalienated world would be impossible and even 
undesirable, but I think we can and should try to reveal the unworld of 
today and how it got this way. We have taken a monstrously wrong turn 
with symbolic culture and division of labor, from a place of enchantment, 
understanding and wholeness to the absence we find at the heart of the 
doctrine of progress. Empty and emptying, the logic of domestication with its 
demand to control everything now shows us the ruin of the civilization that 
ruins the rest. Assuming the inferiority of nature enables the domination of 
cultural systems that soon will make the very Earth uninhabitable. 

Postmodernism says to us that a society without power relations 
can only be an abstraction (Foucault, 1982). This is a lie unless we accept 
the death of nature and renounce what once was and what we can find 
again. Turnbull spoke of the intimacy between Mbuti people and the forest, 
dancing almost as if making love to the forest. In the bosom of a life of 
equals that is no abstraction, that struggles to endure, they were “dancing 
with the forest, dancing with the moon.” 






QUITE A WHI LE AGO, just before the upheavals of the ‘ 60 s — shifts that 
have not ceased, but have been forced in less direct, less public directions — 
Marcuse in his One-Dimensional Man described a populace characterized by 
flattened personality, satisfied and content. With the pervasive anguish of 
today, who could be so described? Therein lies a deep, if inchoate critique. 

Much theorizing has announced the erosion of individuality's last 
remnants; but if this were so, if society now consists of the thoroughly 
homogenized and domesticated, how can there remain the enduring tension 
which must account for such levels of pain and loss? More and more people 
I have known have cracked up. It’s going on to a staggering degree, in a 
context of generalized, severe emotional dis-ease. 

Marx predicted, erroneously, that a deepening material immiseration 
would lead to revolt and to capital’s downfall. Might it not be that an 
increasing psychic suffering is itself leading to the reopening of revolt — 
indeed, that this may even be the last hope of resistance? 

And yet it is obvious that “mere” suffering is no guarantee of anything. 
“Desire does not ‘want” revolution, it is revolutionary in its own right,” 
as Deleuze and Guattari pointed out, while further on in Anti-Oedipus, 
remembering fascism, noting that people have desired against their own 
interests, and that tolerance of humiliation and enslavement remains 


Future Primitive Revisited 

We know that behind psychic repression and avoidance stands social 
repression, even as massive denial shows at least some signs of giving way 
to a necessary confrontation with reality in all of its dimensions. Awareness 
of the social must not mean ignoring the personal, for that would only 
repeat, in its own terms, the main error of psychology. If in the nightmare 
of today each of us has his or her fears and limitations, there is no liberating 
route that forgets the primacy of the whole, including how that whole 
exists in each of us. 

Stress, loneliness, depression, boredom — the madness of everyday 
life. Ever-greater levels of sadness, implying a recognition, on the visceral 
level at least, that things could be different. How much joy is there left in 
the technological society, this field of alienation and anxiety? Mental health 
epidemiologists suspect that no more than 20 percent of us are free of 
psychopathological symptoms. Thus we act out a “pathology of normalcy” 
marked by the chronic psychic impoverishment of a qualitatively unhealthy 

Arthur Barsky’s Worried Sick (1988) diagnoses an American condition 
where, despite all the medical “advances,” the population has never felt 
such a “constant need for medical care.” The crisis of the family and of 
personal life in general sees to it that the pursuit of health, and emotional 
health in particular, has reached truly industrial proportions. A work-life 
increasingly toxic, in every sense of the word, joins with the disintegration 
of the family to fuel the soaring growth of the corporate industrial health 
machine. But for a public in its misery dramatically more interested in 
health care than ever before, the dominant model of medical care is clearly 
only part of the problem, not its solution. Thus Thomas Bittker writes 
of “The Industrialization of American Psychiatry” ( American Journal of 
Psychiatry, February 1985) and Gina Kolata discusses how much distrust of 
doctors exists, as medicine is seen as just another business (New York Times, 
February 20, 1990). 

The mental disorder of going along with things as they are is 
now treated almost entirely by biochemicals, to reduce the individual’s 
consciousness of socially induced anguish, tranquilizers are now the world’s 
most widely prescribed drugs, and antidepressants set record sales as well. 
Temporary relief — despite side effects and addictive properties — is easily 
obtained, while we are all ground down a little more. The burden of simply 
getting by is “Why All Those People Feel They Never Have Any Time,” 



according to Trish Hall ( New York Times, January 2, 1988), who concluded 
that “everybody just seems to feel worn out” by it all. 

An October 1989 Gallup poll found that stress-related illness is 
becoming the leading hazard in the nation’s workplaces, and a month later 
an almost five-fold increase in California stress-related disability claims 
was reported to have occurred between 1982 and 1986. More recent figures 
estimate that almost two-thirds of new cases in employee assistance 
programs represent psychiatric or stress symptoms. In his Modern Madness 
(1986), Douglas La Bier asked, “What is it about work today that can 
cause such harm?” Part of the answer is found in a growing literature 
that reveals the Information Age “office of tomorrow” to be no better than 
the sweatshop of yesteryear. In fact, computerization introduces a neo- 
Taylorist monitoring of work that surpasses all earlier management control 
techniques. The “technological whip” now increasingly held over white- 
collar workers prompted Curt Supplee, in a January ‘90 Washington Post 
article, to judge, “We have seen the future, and it hurts.” A few months 
earlier Sue Miller wrote in the Baltimore Evening Sun of another part of the 
job burnout picture, referring to a national clinical psychology study that 
determined that no less than a staggering 93 percent of American women 
“are caught up in a blues epidemic.” 

Meanwhile, the suicide and homicide rates are rising in the U.S. and 
80 percent of the populace admit to having at least thought of suicide. 
Teenage suicide has risen enormously in the past three decades, and the 
number of teens locked up in mental wards has soared since 1970. So very 
many ways to gauge the pain: serious obesity among children has increased 
more than 50 percent in the last 15 to 20 years; severe eating disorders 
(bulimia and anorexia) among college women are now relatively common; 
sexual dysfunction is widespread; the incidence of panic and anxiety attacks 
is rising to the point of possibly overtaking depression as our most general 
psychological malady; isolation and a sense of meaninglessness continue to 
make even absurd cults and TV evangelism seem attractive to many. 

The litany of cultural symptomatics is virtually endless. Despite 
its generally escapist function, much of contemporary film reflects the 
malaise; see Robert Phillip Kolker’s A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick, 
Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman, for example. And many recent novels are even 
more unflinching in their depiction of the desolation and degradation of 
society, and the burnout of youth in particular, e.g. Bret Easton Ellis” Less 



Than Zero, Fred Pfail’s Goodman 2020, and The Knockout Artist by Harry 
Crews, to mention just a few. 

In this context of immiseration, what is happening to prevailing 
values and mores is of signal interest in further situating our “mass 
psychology” and its significance. There are plenty of signs that the demand 
for “instant gratification” is more and more insistent, bringing with it 
outraged lamentations from both left and right and a further corrosion of 
the structure of repression. 

Credit cardfraud, chiefly the deliberate running up of bills, reached the 
billion-and-a-half-dollar level in 1988 as the personal bankruptcy solution 
to debt, which doubled between 1980 and 1990. Defaults on federal student 
loans more than quadrupled from 1983 to 1989. 

In November 1989, in a totally unprecedented action, the U.S. Navy 
was forced to suspend operations worldwide for 48 hours owing to a rash 
of accidents involving deaths and injuries over the preceding three weeks. 
A total safety review was involved in the moratorium, which renewed 
discussion of drug abuse, absenteeism, unqualified personnel, and other 
problems threatening the Navy’s very capacity to function. 

Meanwhile, levels of employee theft reach ever-higher levels. In 
1989 the Dallas Police Department reported a 29 percent increase in retail 
shrinkage over the previous five years, and a national survey conducted by 
London House said 62 percent of fast-food employees admitted stealing 
from employers. In early 1990 the FBI disclosed that shoplifting was up 35 
percent since 1984, cutting heavily into retail profits. 

November 1988 broke a 40-year mark for low voter turnout, 
continuing a downward direction in electoral participation that has 
plagued presidential elections since 1960. Average college entrance exam 
(SAT) scores declined throughout the 70s and early ‘80s, then rebounded 
very slightly, and in 1988 continued to fall. At the beginning of the ‘80s 
Arthur Levin’s portrait of college students, When Dreams and Heroes Died, 
recounted “a generalized cynicism and lack of trust,” while at the end 
of the decade Robert Nisbet’s The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in 
North America decried the disastrous effects that the younger generation’s 
attitude of “hanging loose” was having on the system. George F. Will, for 
his part, reminded us all that social arrangements, including the authority 
of the government, rest “on a willingness of the public to believe in them,” 
and Harvard economist Harvey Liebenstein’s Inside the Firm echoed him in 


The mass psychology of misery 

stressing that companies must depend on the kind of work their employees 
want to do. 

The nation’s high schools now graduate barely 70 percent of students 
who enter as freshmen, despite massive focus on the dropout rate problem. 
As Michael de Courcy Hinds put it (New York Times, February 17, 1990), 
“U.S. educators are trying almost anything to keep children in school,” while 
an even more fundamental phenomenon is the rising number of people 
of all ages unwilling to leam to read and write. David Harman (Illiteracy: 
A National Dilemma, 1987) gave voice to how baffling the situation is, 
asking why has the acquisition of such skills, “seemingly so simple, been 
so evasive?” 

The answer may be that literacy, like schooling, is increasingly seen 
to be valued merely for its contribution to the workplace. The refusal of 
literacy is but another sign of a deep turn-off from the system, part of the 
spreading disaffection. In mid-1988 a Hooper survey indicated that work 
now ranks eighth out of ten on a scale of important satisfactions in life, 
and 1989 showed the lowest annual productivity growth since the 1981- 
83 recession. The drug “epidemic,” which cost the government almost $25 
billion to combat in the ‘80s, threatens society most acutely at the level of 
the refusal of work and sacrifice. There is no “war on drugs” that can touch 
the situation while at the same time defending this landscape of pain and 
false values. The need for escape grows stronger and the sick social order 
feels consequent desertion, the steady corrosion of all that holds it up. 

Unfortunately, the biggest “escape” of all is one that serves, in the 
main, to preserve the distorted present: what Sennett has called “the 
increasing importance of psychology in bourgeois life.” This includes 
the extraordinary proliferation of new kinds of therapy since the ‘60s, 
and behind this phenomenon the rise of psychology as the predominant 
religion. In the Psychological Society the individual sees himself as a 
problem. This ideology constitutes a preeminent social imprisonment, 
because it denies the social; psychology refuses to consider that society as 
a whole shares fundamental responsibility for the conditions produced in 
every human being. 

The ramifications of this ideology can be seen on all sides. For instance, 
the advice to those besieged by work stress to “take a deep breath, laugh, 
walk it off,” etc. Or the moralizing exhortations to recycle, as if a personal 
ethics of consumption is a real answer to the global eco-crisis caused by 



industrial production. Or the 1990 California Task Force to Promote Self- 
Esteem as a solution to the major social breakdown in that state. 

At the very center of contemporary life, this outlook legitimates 
alienation, loneliness, despair, and anxiety, because it cannot see the 
context for our malaise. It privatizes distress, and suggests that only non- 
social responses are attainable. This “bottomless fraud of mere inwardness,” 
in Adorno’s words, pervades every aspect of American life, mystifying 
experience and thus perpetuating oppression. 

The widespread allegiance to a therapeutic worldview constitutes a 
culture tyrannized by the therapeutic in which, in the name of mental health, 
we are getting mental disease. With the expanding influence of behavioral 
experts, powerlessness and estrangement expand as well; modem life must 
be interpreted for us by the new expertise and its popularizers. 

Gail Sheehy’s Passages (1977), for example, considers life 
developments without reference to any social or historical context, thereby 
vitiating her concern for the “free and autonomous self.” Arlie Russell 
Hochschild’s Managed Heart (1983) focuses on the “commercialization of 
human feelings” in an increasingly service-sector economy, and manages 
to avoid any questioning of the totality by remaining ignorant of the fact 
of class society and the unhappiness it produces. When Society Becomes an 
Addict (1987) is Anne Wilson Schaef’s completely incoherent attempt to 
deny, despite the title, the existence of society, by dealing strictly with the 
interpersonal. And these books are among the least escapist of the avalanche 
of “how-to” therapy books inundating the bookstores and supermarkets. 

It is clear that psychology is part of the absence of community or 
solidarity, and of the accelerating social disintegration. The emphasis is on 
changing one’s personality, and avoiding at all costs the facts of bureaucratic 
consumer capitalism and its meaning to our lives and consciousness. 
Consider Samuel Klarreich’s Stress Solution (1988): “...I believe that we can 
largely determine what will be stressful, and how much it will interfere 
with our lives, by the views we uphold irrespective of what goes on in the 
workplace.” Under the sign of productivity, the citizen is now trained as a 
lifelong inmate of an industrial world, a condition, as Ivan Illich noted, not 
unrelated to the fact that everyone tends toward the condition of therapy’s 
patient, or at least tends to accept its worldview. 

In the Psychological Society, social conflicts of all kinds are auto- 
matically shifted to the level of psychic problems, in order that they can 


The mass psychology of misery 

be charged to individuals as private matters. Schooling produces near- 
universal resistance, which is classified, for example, as “hyperkinesis” and 
dealt with by drugs and/or psychiatric ideology. Rather than recognize the 
child’s protest, his or her life is invaded still further, to ensure that no one 
eludes the therapeutic net. 

It is clear that a retreat from the social, based largely on the experience 
of defeat and consequent resignation, promotes the personal as the only 
possible terrain of authenticity. A desperate denizen of the “singles world” is 
quoted by Louise Banikow: “My ambition is wholly personal now. All I want 
to do is fall in love.” But the demand for fulfillment, however circumscribed 
by psychology, is that of a ravening hunger and a level of suffering that 
threaten to burst the bonds of the prescribed inner world. As noted above, 
indifference to authority, distrust of institutions, and a spreading nihilism 
mean that the therapeutic can neither satisfy the individual nor ultimately 
safeguard the social order. Toynbee noted that a decadent culture furthers 
the rise of a new church that extends hope to the proletariat while servicing 
only the needs of the ruling class. Perhaps sooner than later People will 
begin to realize that psychology is this Church, which may be the reason 
why so many voices of therapy now counsel their flocks against “unrealistic 
expectations” of what life could be. 

For over half a century the regulative, hierarchical needs of a 
bureaucratic-consumerist system have sought modem means of control 
and prediction. The same consolatory ideology of the psychological outlook, 
in which the self is the overarching form of reality, has served these control 
needs and owes most of its assumptions to Sigmund Freud. 

For Freud and his Wagnerian theory of warring instincts and the 
arbitrary division of the self into id, ego and superego, the passions of the 
individual were primordial and dangerous. The work of civilization was to 
check and harness them. The whole edifice of psychoanalysis, Freud said, 
is based upon the theory of necessary repression; domination is obviously 
assisted by this view. That human culture is established only by means of 
suffering, that constant renunciation of desire is inevitable for continuance 
of civilization, that work is sustained by the energy of stifled love — all this 
is required by the “natural aggressiveness” of “human nature,” the latter an 
eternal and universal fact, of course. Understanding fully the deforming 
force of all this repression, Freud considered it likely that neurosis has come 
to characterize all of humanity. Despite his growing fear of fascism after 



World War I, he nonetheless contributed to its growth by justifying the 
renunciation of happiness. Reich referred to Freud and Hitler with some 
bitterness, observing that “a few years later, a pathological genius — making 
the best of ignorance and fear of happiness — brought Europe to the verge of 
destruction with the slogan of ‘heroic renunciation’.” 

With the Oedipus complex, inescapable source of guilt and repression, 
we see Freud again as the consummate Hobbesian. This universal condition 
is the vehicle whereby self-imposed taboos are learned via the (male) 
childhood experience of fear of the father and lust for the mother. It is 
based on Freud’s reactionary fairy tale of a primal horde dominated by a 
powerful father who possessed all available women and who was killed 
and devoured by his sons. This was ludicrous anthropology even when 
penned, and fully exhibits one of Freud’s most basic errors, that of equating 
society with civilization. There is now convincing evidence that precivilized 
life was a time of non-dominance and equality, certainly not the bizarre 
patriarchy Freud provided as origin of most of our sense of guilt and shame. 
He remained convinced of the inescapability of the Oedipal background, 
and the central validity of both the Oedipal complex and of guilt itself for 
the interests of culture. 

Freud considered psychic life as shut in on itself, uninfluenced by 
society. This premise leads to a deterministic view of childhood and even 
infancy, along with such judgments as “the fear of becoming poor is derived 
from regressive anal eroticism.” Consider his Psychopathology of Everyday 
Life, and its 10 editions between 1904 and 1924 to which new examples of 
“slips,” or unintended revelatory usages of words, were continually added. 
We do not find a single instance, despite the upheavals of many of those 
years in and near Austria, of Freud detecting a “slip” that related to fear of 
revolution on the part of this bourgeois subjects, or even of any day-to-day 
social fears, such as related to strikes, insubordination, or the like. It seems 
more than likely that unrepressed slips concerning such matters were 
simply screened out as unimportant to his universalist, ahistorical views. 

Also worth noting is Freud’s “discovery” of the death instinct. In his 
deepening pessimism, he countered Eros, the life instinct, with Thanatos, 
a craving for death and destruction, as fundamental and ineradicable a 
part of the species as striving for life. “The aim of all life is death,” simply 
put (1920). While it may be pedestrian to note that this discovery was 
accompanied by the mass carnage of World War I, an increasingly unhappy 


The mass psychology of misery 

marriage, and the onset of cancer of the jaw, there is no mistaking the 
service this dystopian metaphysics performs in justifying authority. The 
assumption of the death instinct — that aggression, hatred, and fear will 
always be with us — militates against the idea that liberation is possible. In 
later decades, the death instinct-oriented work of Melanie Klein flourished 
in English ruling circles precisely because of its emphasis on social restraints 
in limiting aggressiveness. Today’s leading neo-Freudian, Lacan, also seems 
to see suffering and domination as inevitable; specifically, he holds that 
patriarchy is a law of nature. 

Marcuse, Norman 0. Brown and others have re-theorized Freud in a 
radical direction by taking his ideas as descriptive rather than prescriptive, 
and there is a limited plausibility to an orientation that takes his dark 
views as valid only with respect to alienated life, rather than to any and 
all imaginable social worlds. There are even many Freudian feminists; 
their efforts to apply psychoanalytic dogma to the oppression of women, 
however, appear even more contrived. 

Freud did identify the “female principle” as closer to nature, less 
sublimated, less diffused through repression than that of the male. But 
true to his overall values, he located an essential advance in civilization 
in the victory of male intellectuality over womanly sensuality. What is 
saddest about the various attempts to reappropriate Freud is the absence of 
a critique of civilization: his entire work is predicated on the acceptance of 
civilization as highest value. And basic in a methodological sense, regarding 
those who would merely reorient the Freudian edifice, is Foucault’s warning 
that the will to any system “is to extend our participation in the present 

In the area of gender difference, Freud straightforwardly affirmed 
the basic inferiority of the female. His view of women as castrated men 
is a case of biological determinism: anatomically they are simply less, and 
condemned by this to masochism and penis envy. 

I make no pretense to completeness or depth in this brief look at 
Freud, but it should be already obvious how false was his disclaimer (New 
Introductory Lectures, 1933) that Freudianism posits any values beyond 
those inherent in “objective” science. And to this fundamental failing could 
be added the arbitrary nature of virtually all of his philosophy. Divorced as 
it pointedly is from gross social reality — further examples are legion, but 
seduction theory comes to mind, in which he declared that sexual abuse is, 



most importantly, fantasy — one Freudian inference could just as plausibly 
be replaced by a different one. Overall, we encounter, in the summary 
of Frederick Crews, “a doctrine plagued by mechanism, reification, and 
arbitrary universalism.” 

On the level of treatment, by his own accounts, Freud never was 
able to permanently cure a single patient, and psychoanalysis has proven 
no more effective since. In 1984 the National Institute of Mental Health 
estimated that over 40 million Americans are mentally ill, while a study by 
Regier, Boyd et al. (Archives of General Psychiatry, November 1988) showed 
that 15 percent of the adult population had a “psychiatric disorder.” One 
obvious dimension of this worsening situation, in Joel Kovel’s words, is the 
contemporary family, which “has fallen into a morass of permanent crisis,” 
as indicated by the endless stream of emotionally disabled individuals it 
turns over to the mental health industry. 

If alienation is the essence of all psychiatric conditions, psychology is 
the study of the alienated, but lacks the awareness that this is so. The effect 
of the total society, in which the individual can no longer recognize himself 
or herself, by the canons of Freud and the Psychological Society, is seen as 
irrelevant to diagnosis and treatment. Thus psychiatry appropriates disabling 
pain and frustration, redefines them as illnesses and, in some cases, is able to 
suppress the symptoms. Meanwhile, a morbid world continues its estranging 
technological rationality that excludes any continuously spontaneous, 
affective life: the person is subjected to a discipline designed, at the expense 
of the sensuous, to make him or her an instrument of production. 

Mental illness is primarily an unconscious escape from this design, a 
form of passive resistance. R.D. Laing spoke of schizophrenia as a psychic 
numbing which feigns a kind of death to preserve something of one’s inner 
aliveness. The representative schizophrenic is around 20, at the point of 
culmination of the long period of socialization that has prepared him to 
take up his role in the workplace. He is not “adequate” to this destiny. 
Historically, it is noteworthy that schizophrenia is very closely related 
to industrialism, as Torrey shows convincingly in his Schizophrenia and 
Civilization (1980). 

In recent years Szasz, Foucault, Goffman, and others have called 
attention to the ideological preconceptions through which “mental illness” 
is seen. “Objective” language cloaks cultural biases, as in the case, for 
instance, of sexual “disorders”: in the nineteenth century masturbation was 


The mass psychology of misery 

treated as a disease, and it has only been within the past 20 years that the 
psychological establishment declassified homosexuality as illness. 

And it has long been transparent that there is a class component 
to the origins and treatment of mental illness. Not only is what is called 
“eccentric” among the rich often termed psychiatric disorder — and treated 
quite differently — among the poor, but many studies since Hollingshead 
and Redlich’s Social Class and Mental Illness (1958) have demonstrated 
how much more likely are the poor to become emotionally disabled. Roy 
Porter observed that because it imagines power, madness is both impotence 
and omnipotence, which serves as a reminder that due to the influence 
of alienation, powerlessness, and poverty, women are more often driven 
to breakdown than men. Society makes us all feel manipulated and thus 
mistrustful: “paranoid,” and who could not be depressed? The gap between 
the alleged neutrality and wisdom of the medical model and the rising 
levels of pain and disease is widening, the credibility of the former visibly 

It has been the failure of earlier forms of social control that has given 
psychological medicine, with its inherently expansionist aims, its upward 
trajectory in the past three decades. The therapeutic model of authority 
(and the supposedly value-free professional power that backs it up) is 
increasingly intertwined with state power, and has mounted an invasion 
of the self much more far-reaching than earlier efforts. “There are no limits 
to the ambition of psychoanalytic control; if it had its way, nothing would 
escape it,” according to Guattari. 

In terms of the medicalization of deviant behavior, a great deal 
more is included, than, say, the psychiatric sanctions on Soviet dissidents 
or the rise of a battery of mind control techniques, including behavior 
modification, in U.S. prisons. Punishment has come to include treatment, 
and treatment new powers of punishment; medicine, psychology, education 
and social work take over more and more aspects of control and discipline 
while the legal machinery grows more medical, psychological, pedagogical. 
But the new arrangements, relying chiefly on fear and necessitating more 
and more cooperation by the ruled in order to function, are no guarantee 
of civic harmony. In fact, with their overall failure, class society is running 
out of tactics and excuses, and the new encroachments have created new 
pockets of resistance. 

The setup now usually referred to as “community mental health” 



can be legitimately traced to the establishment of the Mental Hygiene 
Movement in 1908. In the context of the Taylorist degradation of work 
called Scientific Management and a challenging tide of worker militancy, 
the new psychological offensive was based on the dictum that “individual 
unrest to a large degree means bad mental hygiene.” Community psychiatry 
represents a later, nationalized form of this industrial psychology, developed 
to deflect radical currents away from social transformation objectives and 
back under the yoke of the dominating logic of productivity. By the 1920s, 
the workers had become the objects of social science professionals to an 
even greater degree, with the work of Elton Mayo and others, at a time when 
the promotion of consumption as a way of life came to be seen as itself a 
means of easing unrest, collective and individual. And by the end of the 
1930s, industrial psychology had “already developed many of the central 
innovations which now characterize community psychology,” according to 
Diana Ralph’s Work and Madness (1983), such as mass psychological testing, 
the mental health team, auxiliary non-professional counselors, family and 
outpatient therapy, and psychiatric counseling to businesses. 

The million-plus men rejected by the armed forces during World 
War II for “mental unfitness” and the steady rise, observable since the 
mid-’50s, in stress-related illnesses, called attention to the immensely 
crippling nature of modem industrial alienation. Government funding 
was called for, and was provided by the 1963 federal Community Mental 
Health Center legislation. Armed with the relatively new tranquilizing 
drugs to anaesthetize the poor as well as the unemployed, a state presence 
was initiated in urban areas hitherto beyond the reach of the therapeutic 
ethos. Small wonder that some black militants saw the new mental health 
services as basically refined police pacification and surveillance systems for 
the ghettos. The concerns of the dominant order, ever anxious about the 
masses, are chiefly served, however, here as elsewhere, by the strength of 
the image of what science has shown to be normal, healthy, and productive. 
Authority’s best friend is relentless self -inspection according to the ruling 
canons of repressive normalcy in the Psychological Society. 

The nuclear family once provided the psychic underpinning of 
what Norman 0. Brown called “the nightmare of infinitely expanding 
technological progress.” Thought by some to be a bastion against the outer 
world, it has always served as transmission belt for the reigning ideology, 
more specifically as the place in which the interiorizing psychology of 


The mass psychology of misery 

women is produced, the social and economic exploitation of women is 
legitimated, and the artificial scarcity of sexuality is guarded. 

Meanwhile, the state’s concern with delinquent, uneducable and 
unsocializable children, as studied by Donzelot and others, is but one 
aspect of its overshadowing of the family. Behind the medicalized image 
of the good, the state advances and the family steadily loses its functions. 
Rothbaum and Weisz, in Child Psychopathology and the Quest for Control 
(1989), discuss the very rapid rise of their subject, while Castel, Castel and 
Lovell’s earlier The Psychiatric Society (1982) could glimpse the nearing day 
“when childhood will be totally regimented by medicine and psychology.” 
Some facets of this trend are no longer in the realm of conjecture; James 
R. Schiffman, for instance, wrote of one by-product of the battered family 
in his “Teen-Agers End Up in Psychiatric Hospitals in Alarming Numbers” 
(Wall Street Journal, Feb. 3, 1989). 

Therapy is a key ritual of our prevailing psychological religion 
and a vigorously growing one. The American Psychiatric Association’s 
membership jumped from 27,355 in 1983 to 36,223 by the end of the ‘80s, 
and in 1989 a record 22 million visited psychiatrists or other therapists 
covered to at least some extent by health insurance plans. Considering that 
only a small minority of those who practice the estimated 500 varieties of 
psychotherapy are psychiatrists or otherwise health insurance-recognized, 
even these figures do not capture the magnitude of therapy’s shadow world. 

Philip Rieff termed psychoanalysis “yet another method of learning 
how to endure the loneliness produced by culture,” which is a good enough 
way to introduce the artificial situation and relationship of therapy, a 
peculiarly distanced, circumscribed and asymmetrical affair. Most of the 
time, one person talks and the other listens. The client almost always 
talks about himself and the therapist almost never does. The therapist 
scrupulously eschews social contact with clients, another reminder to the 
latter that they have not been talking to a friend, along with the strict time 
limits enclosing a space divorced from everyday reality. Similarly, the purely 
contractual nature of the therapeutic connection in itself guarantees that 
all therapy inevitably reproduces alienated society. To deal with alienation 
via a relationship paid for by the hour is to overlook the congruence of 
therapist and prostitute as regards the traits just enumerated. 

Gramsci defined “intellectual” as the “functionary in charge of 
consent,” a formulation which also fits the role of therapist. By leading 



others to concentrate their “desiring energy outside the social territory,” as 
Guattari put it, he thereby manipulates them into accepting the constraints 
of society. By failing to challenge the social categories within which clients 
have organized their experiences, the therapist strengthens the hold of 
those categories. He tries, typically, to focus clients away from stories about 
work and into the so-called “real” areas — personal life and childhood. 

Psychological health, as a function of therapy, is largely an 
educational procedure. The project is that of a shared system: the client 
is led to acceptance of the therapist’s basic assumptions and metaphysics. 
Francois Roustang, in Psychoanalysis Never Lets Go (1983), wondered 
why a therapeutic method whose “explicit aim is the liberation of forces 
with a view toward being capable ‘of enjoyment and efficiency” (Freud) 
so often ends in alienation either.. .because the treatment turns out to be 
interminable, or... (the client) adopts the manner of speech and thought, the 
theses as well as the prejudices of psychoanalysis.” 

Ever since Hans Lysenko’s short but famous article of 1952, “The 
Effects of Psychotherapy,” countless other studies have validated his 
finding: “Persons given intensive and prolonged psychotherapy are no 
better off than those in matched control groups given no treatment over the 
same time interval.” On the other hand, there is no doubt that therapy or 
counseling does make many people feel better, regardless of specific results. 
This anomaly must be due to the fact that consumers of therapy believe 
they have been cared for, comforted, listened to. In a society growing ever 
colder, this is no small thing. It is also true that the Psychological Society 
conditions its subjects into blaming themselves and that those who most 
feel they need therapy tend to be those most easily exploited: the loneliest, 
most insecure, nervous, depressed, etc. It is easy to state the old dictum, 
“Natura sanat, medicus curat” (Nature heals, doctors/counselors/therapists 
treat); but where is the natural in the hyper-estranged world of pain and 
isolation we find ourselves in? And yet there is no getting around the 
imperative to remake the world. If therapy is to heal, make whole, what 
other possibility is there but to transform this world, which would of course 
also constitute a de-therapizing of society. It is clearly in this spirit that the 
Situationist International declared in 1963, “Sooner or later the S.I. must 
define itself as a therapeutic.” 

Unfortunately, the great communal causes later in the decade 
acquired a specifically therapeutic cast mainly in their degeneration, in the 


The mass psychology of misery 

splintering of the ‘60s thrust into smaller, more idiosyncratic efforts. “The 
personal is the political” gave way to the merely personal, as defeat and 
disillusion overtook naive activism. 

Conceived out of critical responses to Freudian psychoanalysis, 
which has shifted its sights toward ever-earlier phases of development 
in childhood and infancy, the Human Potential Movement began in the 
mid-’60s and acquired its characteristic features by the early 70s. With 
a post-Freudian emphasis on the conscious ego and its actualization, 
Human Potential set forth a smorgasbord of therapies, including varieties 
or amalgams of personal growth seminars, body awareness techniques, 
and Eastern spiritual disciplines. Almost buried in the welter of partial 
solutions lies a subversive potential: the notion that, as Adelaide Bry put it, 
life “can be a time of infinite and joyous possibility.” The demand for instant 
relief from psychic immiseration underlined an increasing concern for the 
dignity and fulfillment of individuals, and Daniel Yankelovich (New Rules, 
1981) saw the cultural centrality of this quest, concluding that by the end 
of the 70s, some 80 percent of Americans had become interested in this 
therapeutic search for transformation. 

But the privatized approaches of the Human Potential Movement, 
high-water mark of contemporary Psychological Society, were obviously 
unable to deliver on their promises to provide any lasting, non-illusory 
breakthroughs. Arthur Janov recognized that “everyone in this society is in 
a lot of pain,” but expressed no awareness at all of the repressive society 
generating it. His Primal Scream technique qualifies as the most ludicrous 
cure-all of the 70s. Scientology’s promise of empowerment consisted 
mainly of bioelectronic feedback technologies aimed at socializing people 
to an authoritarian enterprise and worldview. The popularity of cult groups 
like the Moonies reminds one of a time-tested process for the uninitiated: 
isolation, deprivation, anticipation, and suggestion; brainwashing and the 
shamanic vision quest both use it. 

Wemer Erhard’s est, speaking of intensive psychological manipulation, 
was one of the most popular and, in some ways, most characteristic Human 
Potential phenomena. Its founder became very wealthy by helping Erhard 
Seminars Training adepts “choose to become what they are.” In a classic 
case of blaming the victim, est brought large numbers to a near-religious 
embrace of one of the system’s basic lies: its graduates are obediently 
conformist because they “accept responsibility” for having created things 


Future Primitive Revisited 

as they are. Transcendental Meditation actually marketed itself in terms of 
the passive incorporation into society it helped its students achieve. TM’s 
alleged usefulness for adjustment to the varied “excesses and stresses” of 
modem society was a major selling point to corporations, for example. 

Trapped in a highly rationalized and technological world, Human 
Potential seekers naturally wanted personal development, emotional 
immediacy, and above all, a sense of having some control over their lives. 
Self-help best-sellers of the 70s, including Power, Your Erroneous Zones, 
How to Take Charge of Your Life, Self-Creation, Looking Out for #1, and 
Pulling Your Own Strings, focus on the issue of control. Preaching the 
gospel of reality as a personal construct, however, meant that control 
had to be narrowly defined. Once again acceptance of social reality as a 
given meant, for example, that “sensitivity training” would likely mean 
continued insensitivity to most of reality, an openness to more of the same 
alienation — more ignorance, more suffering. 

The Human Potential Movement did at least raise publicly and widely 
the notion of an end to disease, however much it failed to make good on that 
claim. As more and more of everyday life has come under medical dominion 
and supervision, the almost bewildering array of new therapies was part 
of an undercutting of the older, mainly Freudian, “scientific” model for 
behavior. In the shift of therapeutic expectations, a radical hope appeared, 
which went beyond merely positive-thinking or empty confessionalist 
aspects and is different from quiescence. 

A current form of self-help that clearly represents a step forward 
from both traditional therapy, commodified and under the direction of 
expertise, and the mass-marketed seminar-introduction sort of training, 
is the very popular “support group." Non-commercial and based on peer- 
group equality, support groups for many types of emotional distress have 
quadrupled in number in the past 10 years. Where these groups do not 
enforce the 12-step ideology of “anonymous” groups (e.g. Alcoholics 
Anonymous) based on the individual’s subjection to a “Higher Power” (read: 
all constituted authority) — and most of them do not — they provide a great 
source of solidarity, and work against the depoliticizing force of illness or 
distress experienced in an isolated state. 

If the Human Potential Movement thought it possible to re-create 
personality and thus transform life, New Ageism goes it one better with its 
central slogan, “Create your own reality.” Considering the advancing, invasive 


The mass psychology of misery 

desolation, an alternative reality seems desirable-the eternal consolation 
of religion. For the New Age, booming since the mid-1980s, is essentially 
a religious turning away from reality by people who are overloaded by 
feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, a more definitive turning away 
than that of the prevailing psychologistic evasion. Religion invents a realm 
of non-alienation to compensate for the actual one; New Age philosophy 
announces a coming new era of harmony and peace, obviously inverting 
the present, unacceptable state. An undemanding, eclectic, materialistic 
substitute religion where any balm, any occult nonsense — channeling, 
crystal healing, reincarnation, rescue by UFOs, etc. — goes. “It’s true if you 
believe it.” 

Anything goes, so long as it goes along with what authority has 
ordained: anger is “unhealthy,” “negativity” a condition to be avoided at 
all costs. Feminism and ecology are supposedly “roots” of the New Age 
scene, but likewise were militant workers a “root” of the Nazi movement 
(National Socialist German Workers Party, remember). Which brings to 
mind the chief New Age influence, Carl Jung. It is unknown or irrelevant 
to “nonjudgmental” bliss-seekers that in his attempt to resurrect all 
the old faiths and myths, Jung was less a psychologist than a figure of 
theology and reaction. Further, as president of the International Society 
for Psychotherapy from 1933 to 1939, he presided over its Nazified German 
section and co-edited the Zentralblattfur Ps ychotherapie (with M.H. Goring, 
cousin of the Reichsmarshall of the same name). 

Still gathering steam, apparently, since the appearance of Otto 
Kemberg’s Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism (1975) and 
The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch (1978), is the idea that 
“narcissistic personality disorders” are the epitome of what is happening 
to all of us, and represent the “underlying character structure” of our age. 
Narcissus, the image of self-love and a growing demand for fulfillment, 
has replaced Oedipus, with its components of guilt and repression, as the 
myth of our time — a shift proclaimed and adopted far beyond the Freudian 

In passing, it is noteworthy that this change, underway since the 
‘60s, seems to connect more with the Human Potential search for self- 
development than with New Age whose devotees take their desires less 
seriously. Common New Age nostrums, e.g. “You are infinitely creative,” 
“You have unlimited potential,” smack of a vague wish-fulfillment sanitized 



against anger, by those who doubt their own capacities for change and 
growth. Though the concept of narcissism is somewhat elusive, clinically 
and socially, it is often expressed in a demanding, aggressive way that 
frightens various partisans of traditional authority. The Human Potential 
preoccupation with “getting in touch with one’s feelings,” it must be added, 
was not nearly as strongly self-affirming as narcissism is, where feelings — 
chiefly anger — are more powerful than those that need to be searched for. 

Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism remains extremely influential as a social 
analysis of the transition from Oedipus to Narcissus, given great currency 
and publicity by those who lament this turning away from internalized 
sacrifice and respect for authority. The “new leftist” Lasch proved himself 
a strict Freudian, and an overtly conservative one at that, looking back 
nostalgically at the days of the authoritarian conscience based on strong 
parental and social discipline. There is no trace of refusal in Lasch’s work, 
which embraces the existing repressive order as the only available morality. 
Similar to his sour rejection of the “impulse-ridden” narcissistic personality 
is Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985). Postman moralizes 
about the decline of political discourse, no longer “serious” but “shriveled and 
absurd,” a condition caused by the widespread attitude that “amusement 
and pleasure” take precedence over “serious public involvement.” Sennett 
and Bookchin can be mentioned as two other erstwhile radicals who 
see the narcissistic withdrawal from the present political framework as 
anything but positive or subversive. But even an orthodox Freudian like 
Russell Jacoby ( Telos , Summer 1980) recognized that in the corrosion of 
sacrifice, “narcissism harbors a protest in the name of individual health and 
happiness,” and Gilles Lipovetsky considered narcissism in France to have 
been bom during the May ‘68 uprisings. 

Thus narcissism is more than just the location of desire in the self, or 
the equally ubiquitous necessity to maintain feelings of self-identity and 
self-esteem. There are more and more “narcissistically troubled” people, 
products of the lovelessness and extreme alienation of modem divided 
society, and its cultural and spiritual impoverishment. Deep feelings of 
emptiness characterize the narcissist, coupled with a boundless rage, often 
just under the surface, at the sense of dependency felt because of dominated 
life, and the hollowness of one starved by a deficient reality. 

Freudian theory attributes the common trait of defiance to an immature 
“clinging to anal eroticism,” while ignoring Society just as Lasch expresses his 


The mass psychology of misery 

fear of narcissistic resentment and insubordination” in a parallel defense of 
oppressive existence. The angry longing for autonomy and self-worth brings 
to mind another clash of values that relates to value itself. In each of us lives 
a narcissist who wants to be loved for himself or herself and not for his or 
her abilities, or even qualities. Value per se, intrinsic — a dangerously anti- 
instrumental, anti-capital orientation. To a Freudian therapist like Arnold 
Rothstein, this “expectation that the world should gratify him just because 
he wishes it” is repugnant. He prescribes lengthy psychoanalysis that will 
ultimately permit an acceptance of “the relative passivity, helplessness, and 
vulnerability implicit in the human condition.” 

Others have seen in narcissism the hunger for a qualitatively different 
world. Norman 0. Brown referred to its project of “loving union with the 
world,” while the feminist Stephanie Engel has argued that “the call back 
to the memory of original narcissistic bliss pushes us toward a dream of 
the future.” Marcuse saw narcissism as an essential element of utopian 
thought, a mythic structure celebrating and yearning for completeness. 

The Psychological Society offers, of course, every variety of commodity, 
from clothes and cars to books and therapies, for every lifestyle, in a vain 
effort to assuage the prevailing appetite for authenticity. Debord was right 
in his counsel that the more we capitulate to a recognition of self in the 
dominant images of need, the less we understand our own existence and 
desires. The images society provides do not permit us to find ourselves at 
home there, and one sees instead a ravening, infuriating sense of denial and 
loss, which nominates “narcissism” as a subversive configuration of misery. 

Two centuries ago Schiller spoke of the “wound” civilization has 
inflicted on modem humanity: division of labor. In announcing the age 
of “psychological man,” Philip Rieff discerned a culture “in which technics 
is invading and conquering the last enemy — man’s inner life, the psyche 
itself.” In the specialist culture of our bureaucratic-industrial age, the 
reliance on experts to interpret and evaluate inner life is in itself the most 
malignant and invasive reach of division of labor. As we have become 
more alien from our own experiences, which are processed, standardized, 
labeled, and subjected to hierarchical control, technology emerges as the 
power behind our misery and the main form of ideological domination. In 
fact, technology comes to replace ideology. The force deforming us stands 
increasingly revealed, while illusions are ground away by the process of 


Future primitive Revisited 

Lasch and others may resent and try to discount the demanding 
nature of the contemporary “psychological” spirit, but what is contested 
has clearly widened for a great many, even if the outcome is equally 
unclear. Thus the Psychological Society may be failing to deflect or even 
defer conflict by means of its favorite question, “Can one change?” The real 
question is whether the world-that-enforces-our-inability-to-change can 
be forced to change, and beyond recognition. 




THE DEFINING OF SENTIMENTS has always been a preoccupation 
of religions and governments. But for quite some time music, with its 
apparent indifference to external reality, has been developing an ideological 
power of expression hitherto unknown. Originally music was a utility 
to establish the rhythms of work, the rhythms of dances which were 
ritual observances. And we know that it was treated as a vital symbolic 
reinforcement of the “harmony” of ancient Chinese hierarchical society, just 
as to Plato and Aristotle it embodied key moral functions in the social order. 
The Pythagorean belief that “the whole cosmos is a harmony and a number” 
leapt from the fact of natural sonic phenomena to an all-encompassing 
philosophical idealism, and was echoed about a thousand years later by 
the seventh-century encyclopedist Isadore of Seville, who asserted that the 
universe “is held together by a certain harmony of sounds, and the heavens 
themselves are made to revolve” by its modulations. As Sancho Panza said 
to the duchess (another thousand years down the road), who was distressed 
at hearing the distant sound of an orchestra in the forest. “Where there is 
music, Madam, there could be no mischief.” 

Indeed, many things have been said to characterize the elusive 
element we know as music. Stravinsky, for example, was quite serious in 
denying its expressive, emotional aspect: “The phenomenon of music is 
given to us for the sole purpose of establishing order in things, and chiefly 
between man and time.” It does seem clear that music calms the sense of 
time’s oppressiveness, by offering, in its patterns of tensions and resolutions, 


Future primitive Revisited 

a temporal counterworld. As Levi-Strauss put it, “Because of the internal 
organization of the musical work, the act of listening to it immobilizes 
passing time; it catches and enfolds it as one catches and enfolds a cloth 
flapping in the wind.” 

But, contra Stravinsky, there is clearly more to music, more to its 
compelling appeal, of which Homer said, “We only hear, we know nothing.” 
Part of its mysterious resonance, if you will, is its simultaneous universality 
and immediacy. Herein lies also its ambiguity, a cardinal feature of all art. 
An Eisenstadt photograph of 1934, entitled “The Room in which Beethoven 
was Bom,” testifies to the latter point; just as he was about to take the 
picture, a party of Nazis arrived and placed a commemorative wreath — 
shown in the foreground — before the room’s bust of Beethoven. 

So the great genre of inwardness that is music has been appropriated 
to many purposes and philosophies. To the Marxist Bloch, it is a realm where 
the utopian horizon already “begins at our feet.” It lets us hear what we do 
not have, as in Marcuse’s poetic formulation that music is “a remembrance 
of what could be.” Although representation is already reconciliation with 
society, there is always a moment of longing in music. “Something is lacking, 
and sound at least states this lack clearly. Sound has itself something dark 
and thirsty about it and blows about instead of stopping in one place, like 
paint,” to quote Bloch once more. Adorno insisted that the truth of music 
is “guaranteed more by its denial of any meaning in organized society,” 
consonant with a retreat into aesthetics as his choice for the last repository 
of negation in an administered world. 

Music, however, like all art, owes its existence to the division of labor 
in society. Although it is still generally seen in isolation, as personal creation 
and autonomous sphere, social meaning and values are always encoded in 
music. This truth coexists with the fact that music refers to nothing other 
than itself as is often said, and that what it signifies is, at base, always 
determined solely by its inner relationships. It is valid to point out, alter 
Adomo, that music can be understood as “a kind of analogue to that of 
social theory”” If it keeps open “the irrational doorways” through which we 
glimpse “the wildness and the pang of life,” according to Aaron Copland, its 
ideological component must also be recognized, especially when it claims 
to transcend social reality and its antagonisms. 

In “The Rational and Social Foundations of Music” Weber (as 
elsewhere) concerned himself with the disenchantment of the world, in 


Tonality and the totality 

this case searching out the irrational musical elements (e.g. the 7th chord) 
which seemed to him to have escaped the rationalistic equalization that 
characterizes the development of modem bureaucratic society. But if non- 
rationalized nature is a rebuke to equivalence, a reminder and remainder of 
non-identity, music, with its obsessive rules, is not such a reminder. 

Research carried out at the University of Chicago demonstrated 
that there are more than 1300 discernible pitches available to melodic 
consciousness, yet only a very small fraction of them are allowed. Not even 
the 88 tones of the piano really come into play, considering the repetition of 
the octave structure — another aspect of the absence of free or natural music. 

Not reducible to words, at once intelligible and untranslatable, music 
continues to refuse us complete access. Levi-Strauss, introducing The Raw 
and the Cooked, even went so far as to isolate it as “the supreme mystery 
of the science of man [sic], a mystery that all the various disciplines come 
up against and which holds the key to their progress.” This essay locates 
the fundamentals rather more simply, namely in the question of music’s 
perennial combination of free expression with social regulation; more 
precisely in this case, with an historical treatment of that which is our 
sense of music, Western tonality. Put in context, its standardized grammar 
to a large extent answers the question of what it is that music says. And the 
depth of its authority may be understood as applicable to Nietzsche’s fear 
that “We shall never be rid of God so long as we still believe in grammar.” 

But before situating tonality historically, a few words are in order 
toward defining this basic musical syntax, a cultural practice which has 
been termed one of the greatest intellectual achievements of Western 
civilization. First, it must be stressed that, contrary to the assertion of 
major theorists of tonal harmonics from Rameau to Schenker, tonality was 
not destined by the physical order of sounds. Tone, almost never found fixed 
at the same pitch in nature, is divested of any natural quality and shaped 
according to arbitrary laws; this standardization and strict distancing are 
elementary to harmonic progress, and tend toward an instrumental or 
mechanical expression and away from the human voice. As a result of the 
selection made in the sound continuum by an arbitrarily imposed scale, 
hierarchical relations are established among the notes. 

Since the Renaissance (and until Schoenberg), Western music has 
been conceived on the basis of the diatonic scale, whose central element 
is the tonic triad, or defined key, which subordinates the other notes to it. 



Tonality actually means the state of having a pitch — the tonic, as it is most 
simply called — that has authority over all the other tones; the systematics 
of this leading-note quality has been the preoccupation of our music. 
Schenker wrote of the tonic’s “desire to dominate its fellow tones”: in his 
choice of words we can already begin to see a connection between tonality 
and modem class society. The leading theorist of tonal authority, he referred 
to it in 1906 as “a sort of higher collective order, similar to a state, based on 
its own social contracts by which the individual tones are bound to abide.” 

There are many who still hold that the emergence of a tonal center in 
a work is an inevitable product of natural harmonic function and cannot be 
suppressed. Here we have an exact parallel to ideology, where the hegemony 
of the frame of reference that is tonality is treated as merely self-evident. 
The ideological miasma which helps make other social constructs seem 
natural and objective also hides the ruling prejudices that are imbedded in 
the essence of tonality. It is, nonetheless, as Arnold Schoenberg suggested, 
a “device” to produce unity. In fact, tonal music is full of illusion, such as 
that of false community, in which the whole is portrayed as being made 
up of autonomous voices; this impression transcends music to provide a 
legitimizing reflection of the general division of labor in divided society. 

Dynamically speaking, tonality creates a sense of tension and release, 
of motion and repose, through the use of chordal dissonance and consonance. 
Movement away from the tonic is experienced as tension, returning as 
a homecoming, a resolution. All tonal music moves toward resolution 
in the cadence or close, with the tonic chord ruling all other harmonic 
combinations, drawing them to itself, and embodying authority, stability, 
repose. Supramusically, a nostalgically painful attitude of wandering and 
returning runs through the whole course of bourgeois culture, and is ably 
expressed by the very movement basic to tonality. 

This periodic convergence toward a point of repose enabled 
increasingly extended musical structures, and the areas of tonal expectation 
and fulfillment came to be placed further apart. It is not surprising that 
as the dominant society must strive for agreement, assent — harmony — 
from its subjects through greater distances of alienation, tonality develops 
more distant departures from the certainty and repose of the tonic and 
thus lengthier delays in gratification. The forced march of progress finds its 
correspondence in the rationalized direction “compulsion of tonic” dominant 
harmony, complete with a persistent patriarchal character. 


Tonality and the totality 

Three centuries of tonality also tend to bury awareness of its 
suppression of earlier rhythmic possibilities, its narrowing of the great 
inner variety of the rhythm to a schematic alternation of “stressed” and 
“unstressed.” The rise of tonality similarly coincided with the coming to 
power of symmetrical thinking and the recapitulating musical structure, the 
possibility of attaining a certain closure by means of a certain uniformity. 
Chenneviere, in discussing tonality’s newly simplified and intellectualized 
system of notation, discerned “a most radical impoverishment of occidental 
music,” referring mainly to the symmetrical balancing of clause against 
clause and the emphasis on chordal repetition. 

In the early nineteenth century, William Chappell published a 
collection of “national English airs” (popular songs) in which academic 
harmonic patterns were imposed on surviving folk melodies, older 
melodies suppressed and “irregular tunes squared off.” The binarism 
of the basic major key/minor key had come to prevail and, as Busoni 
concluded, “The harmonic symbols have fenced in the expression of 
music.” The emergence of tonality corresponded to that of nationalized 
and centralized hierarchy which came to pervade economic, political and 
cultural life. Ready-made structures of expressivity monopolize musical 
subjectivity and patterns of desire. Clifford Geertz makes this pertinent 
judgment: “One of the most significant facts about us may finally be that 
we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand lives but end 
in the end having lived only one.” 

Tonality inmusic may be likened to realism in literature and perspective 
in painting, but it is more deeply ingrained than either. This facilitates a 
would-be transcendence of class distinctions and social differences under 
the sign of a “universal” key-centered music, triumphant since tonality 
defined the realm of mass musical appreciation and consumption. There is 
no spoken language on the planet which even begins to compete with the 
accessibility tonality has provided as a means of human expression. 

Any historical study that omits musicrisksa diminished understanding 
of society. Consider, for example, the ninth-century efforts of Charlemagne 
to establish uniformity in liturgical music throughout his empire for 
political reasons, or the tenth-century organ in Winchester Cathedral with 
its four hundred pipes: the height of Western technology to that time. It is 
at least arguable that music, in fact, provides a better key than any other to 
the understanding of the changing spirit of this civilization. To refocus on 



tonality, one can, using conventional periodization, locate perhaps its earliest 
roots in the transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance era. 

If the eminent medievalist Bloch is correct in characterizing medieval 
society as unequal rather than hierarchical, there is a definite cogency 
to John Shepherd’s interpretation of the faint beginnings of the tonal 
system as the encoding of a new hierarchical musical ideology out of a 
more mutual one which idealized its own, earlier society. The medieval 
outlook, based on its decentralized and localized character, was relatively 
tolerant of varying worldviews and musical forms, and did not consider 
them as basically destructive of its feudal ideological foundation. The 
emerging modem world, however, was typified by greater division of labor, 
abstraction, and an intolerant, totalizing character. Uniform printing, and 
a print literacy corrosive of oral, face-to-face traditions, explains some of 
the shift, as moveable type provided a model for the proto-industrial use 
of individuals as mechanically interacting parts of a machine. Indeed the 
invention of printing at about 1500 gave musical notation great scope, 
which made possible the role of composer, by the separation of creator and 
performer and the downgrading of the latter. Western culture thus soon 
produced the completely notated musical work, facilitating a formal theory 
of composition at the expense of an earlier predominance of improvisation 
along certain guidelines. In this way print literacy and its dynamic 
uniformity led to a growing harmonic explicitness. 

Some musicologists have even located a recurrent urge to curb the 
“recalcitrant independence” of the individual parts of polyphonic multi- 
voiced music in the interests of harmony and order, dating back to the 
late thirteenth century. Ars nova, the principal musical form of the 
fourteenth century, illustrates some of the tendencies at work in this long 
transitional period of preharmonic polyphony. Early on, and especially in 
France, ars nova reached a stunning degree of rhythmic complexity that 
European music would not achieve again until Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring 
five centuries later. But this very complexity, increasingly based on an 
abstract conception of time, led to an extraordinary refinement of notation, 
and hence pointed away from a music based on the singing voice and 
away from melodic subtlety and rhythmic flexibility. Formalization seems 
always to imply reduction, and in turn a nascent feeling for tonic-dominant 
relationships was manifest by the mid-fifteenth century. 

The considerable loss of a spontaneous rhythmic sense after the 


Tonality and the Totality 

Middle Ages is evidence of increased domestication, just as two basic 
Renaissance characteristics, specialization of and within the orchestra and 
the formation of a class of narrowly focused virtuosi, also bespoke a greater 
division of labor at large. Similarly, new emphasis had been placed on the 
spectator, and by the late 1500s, music involving no spectacle other than 
that of men at work, not intended for provoking movement or for singing 
but made only for being passively consumed, first appeared. 

Renaissance music remained for the most part and most importantly 
vocal, but during this period instrumental music became independent 
and first developed a number of autonomous forms known collectively 
as “absolute music.” More and more secularized as well, European music 
under the unquestioned leadership of the Netherlands between 1400 and 
1600 took on a mathematicized aspect quite compatible with the Dutch 
ascendancy within the rise of early mercantile capitalism. The power of 
sound achieved an intoxication bom of the choral mass effects that are made 
possible when the many, formerly independent voices of a composition join 
into one body of harmony. 

But a tonal harmonics present in some places was not yet a tonality 
present throughout. The modal scales, sufficient from the early Middle Ages 
to the latter part of the sixteenth century, expanded from eight to 12 modes 
and then began to break down and yield to two less fluid modes, major/ 
minor scale binarism. “The restlessness and disenchantment of the late 
Renaissance,” in Edward Lowinsky’s words, called forth the coherence and 
unity of tonic-dominant structure as music’s contribution to class society’s 
cultural hegemony. Our modem harmonic sense, the conception of tone as 
the sum of many vertically grouped tones, is an idealization of hierarchized 
social harmony. 

Peter Clark’s The European Crisis of the 1590s quotes a Spanish writer 
of 1592: “England without God, Germany in schism, Flanders in rebellion, 
France with all these together.” As the century drew to a close, surveyed 
Henry Karmen, “Probably never before in European history had so many 
popular uprisings coincided in time.” Tonality was not yet victorious but 
would, fairly soon, come to reign among the dominant ideas of society, 
playing its part to channel and thereby pacify desire. 

As polyphony faded, the modem key system began to emerge 
more distinctly in a new form in the opening years of the 1600s; namely, 
opera, first brought forth in Italy by Monteverdi. The conscious rhetorical 



presentation of emotion, it was the first secular musical structure in the 
West conceived on a scale sufficiently grand to rival that of religious music. 
With opera and elsewhere, the early phases of “the developing feeling 
for tonality,” according to H.C. Colies, “already gave the new works an 
appearance of orderliness and stability which marked the inauguration of 
a new era in art.” 

The growing concern for a central tonality in the seventeenth century 
thrived on Descartes. With his mathematized, mechanistic rationalism and 
his specific attention to musical structure, Descartes advanced the new tonal 
system in the same spirit as he consciously put his scientific philosophy 
in the service of strong central government. To Adomo, polyphonic music 
contained nonreified, autonomous elements which made it perhaps best 
suited to express the “otherness” Cartesian consciousness was designed to 

The background to this development was a marked renewal of the 
social strife of the very late 1500s. Hobsbawm found in the 1600s the crisis 
par excellence; Parker and Smith (The General Crisis of the Seventeenth 
Century) saw this “explosion of political instability” in Europe as “directed 
overwhelmingly against the State, particularly during the period 1625- 
1675.” The previous century had been largely the golden age of counterpoint, 
reaching its apogee with Palestrina and Lassus, its ideal a static social 
harmony to be imitated in music. The Baroque aesthetic corresponded 
to the crises beginning in the 1590s, and resuming in earnest with the 
general economic breakdown of 1620; it’s nothing if not a rejection of 
classical calm and its polyphonic refinements. The essence of Baroque is 
to move with the turbulence so as to control it; hence it combines restless 
movement with formalism. Here the concerto comes of age, linked by more 
than etymology to consent, consensus. Derived from the Latin concertare, 
agreement reached with dissonant elements, it reflected, as a well- 
harmonized ensemble, the great demand of the system for authority equal 
to the social struggles. 

Harmony is homophony, not polyphony; polyphony and harmony are 
in themselves irreconcilable. Instead of a form in which many voices are 
combined so that each retains its own character, with harmony we really 
hear only one tone. In the Baroque age of conflict homophony overtakes and 
supplants polyphony, with obvious ideological “overtones.” Independent 
sounds merge to form a united block, whose function is background for 



the melody and also to register the tune in motion in its place within the 
tonal system. At this time harmony first established itself as essential to 
music, even changing the nature of melody in the process. Rhythm too was 
affected by harmony; indeed the division of music into bars was dictated by 
the new, ever-present harmonic rhythm. 

Spengler judged that music overtook painting as the chief European 
art at about 1670. It prevailed at the very time when tonality was 
definitively realized; music was henceforth to be written in the idiom of 
fully established tonality, without challenge, for about two and a half 
centuries. The externalization of immediate subjective interests according 
to tonality’s generalizing code corresponds, from this time as well, to the 
legal conception of the “reasonable man,” Dunwell informs us, though 
one is tempted to rephrase it as “modem, domesticated,” rather than 

There are other striking temporal coincidences. John Wolf’s The 
Emergence of the Great Powers, 1685-1715, among other historical studies, 
sets the moment of ascendant state power as paralleling that of central 
tonality. And as Bukhofzer wrote, “Both tonality and gravitation were 
discoveries of the baroque period made at exactly the same time.” The 
significance of Newtonian physics is that universal gravitation offered a 
model emphasizing immutable law and resistance to change; its universally 
prevailing, ordered motions provided a unifjed cosmological exemplar 
for political and economic order — as did tonality. In the new harmonic 
system the principal tone, the one strongest and most dominant, gravitates 
downward and through, and becomes the bass, the fundamental tone of the 
chord; the laws of tonality can be read almost interchangeably, incredible 
as it may sound, with those of gravitation. 

Mid- to late seventeenth century England exemplified more general 
social trends in music. The critics North and Mace wrote of the decline of 
the amateur viol player, and the tendency in composition wherein “Part 
writing gave way to fireworks and pattern making,” to cite Peter Warlock. 
Family chamber music decreased; the habit of passive listening increased, 
against the breakup of village communalism with its songs and dances. 
Victorious tonality was a very important part of a major social and symbolic 
restructuring, and certainly not just in England. 

Beginning in the Baroque era, the main vehicle of tonality was the 
sonata (i.e. “played” as opposed to the earlier, single-movement canzona or 



“sung”), which came to cover virtually any instrumental, multimovement 
composition that proceeds according to a formal plan. The sonata form 
was an organic outgrowth of harmonic tonality in that its symmetries 
were basically related to the internal symmetrical organization of the 
grammar of tonality; its fundamental structure requires that music which 
appears first as a move away from the tonic toward a newly polarized key 
be reinterpreted finally with the original tonic area in order to restore the 
balance. Even the challenging finales of Mozart’s operas, Rosen reminds us, 
have the symmetrical tonal structure of a sonata. By the end of the Baroque 
in the late eighteenth century, symmetry withheld and then finally granted 
had become one of music’s cardinal satisfactions. 

With its conflict of two themes, its keynote, development and reprise, 
the sonata form presupposes a capitalist dynamics; the equilibrium-oriented 
and totally undramatic fugue, high-water mark of an earlier counterpoint, 
reflected a more static hierarchical society. Fugal style was fulfilled just 
as tonality came to complete predominance and its movement is largely 
one of sequence. A classical sonata, on the other hand, is self -generating, 
moving forward as a revelation of its initially unseen inner potential. The 
fugue goes on obeying its initial law, like a calculation, as befits rationalist 
Enlightenment, whereas sonata themes exhibit a dynamic condition 
announcing the qualitative leap in domination of nature inaugurated by 
industrial capitalism. 

In the early seventeenth century Rubens’ studio became a factory; 
his output of over 1200 paintings was unprecedented in the history of art. 
One hundred fifty years later, utilizing the preordained sonata form, Haydn 
and Mozart could turn out 150 symphonies between them. Perhaps it is 
not suggesting too much, or denying the genius of some creators, to see 
in this mechanism a cultural prefiguring of mass production. A further 
characteristic is that sonata music, unlike the complicated late fugal style, 
had to be predictable, pleasing. Reminding one of tonality itself, “The sonata 
cycle affirms the happy ending, lends itself to reconciliation, to salvation 
from first and second movement strivings, torments, inner doubts” before it 
concludes, in the words of Robert Solomon. 

The sonata form principle also involves the idea of gradually 
increasing activity, a cumulative dynamism that reaches out to exclude 
specificity, to dominate via generalization. It is for this effect that it 
embodies the crowning achievement of the emergence of generalizing forms 


Tonality and the Totality 

in bourgeois evolution and so well expresses the drive toward “universal” 
values and world hegemony of European culture and capital. 

In the eighteenth century the modem notion of music’s autonomy 
began to form, with the claim (persisting today) to transcendental truth that 
attaches to Bach and Mozart especially. The proud solemnity of Handel’s 
oratorios speaks of the rise of imperialist England and a desire to legitimate 
that rise, but Bach in particular most effectively articulated the social values 
of the emerging bourgeoisie as universal rationality, objectivity, truth. 

The precursors of Bach had made evident a structuration proper to 
tonality, but it was he who brought that structuration to a precise perfection, 
combining the drama and goal orientation of the late Baroque with aspects 
of the earlier, soberer contrapuntal ideal. It is worth noting that the older, 
more statically mathematized forms survive in the eighteenth century, 
though they do not reign; this survival accounts for those sequential 
developments which Constant Lambert disrespectfully speaks of as the 
Bach “sewing machine,” just as Wagner referred to Mozart as possessed of 
“sometimes an almost trivial regularity.” 

But if Bach represents the virtual apotheosis of harmonically based 
tonality there were some doubts expressed regarding this whole thrust. 
Rousseau, for example, saw harmony as only another symptom of Europe’s 
cultural decay indeed as the death of music. He based this extreme view 
on harmony’s depreciation of melody: its delimitation of the perception of 
musical sounds to the internal structuring of its elements and hence its 
truncation of the listener’s experience. Goethe too had misgivings in terms 
of the artificiality and reification of fully developed tonality, but they were 
less clearly stated than Rousseau’s. 

By about 1800, tonal instrumental music reached the full command 
of its powers, a point that painting had arrived at almost three hundred 
years earlier. The greatest change in eighteenth-century tonality in part 
influenced by the establishment of equal temperament (the division of 
the octave into 12 precisely equal semitones) was an even more emphatic 
polarity between tonic and dominant and an enlargement of the range over 
which the key modulation obtains. At the beginning of the century the 
key relationship could already hold up over periods of eight or more bars 
without being sounded again, whereas Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven had, 
by the end of the century, extended the authority of harmonic relations to 
five or even ten minutes. 


Future primitive Revisited 

The widening of the tonal orbit, however, meant a consequent 
weakening in the gravitational pull of the tonic; with Beethoven, in the early 
Romantic era, some undermining of structural tonality can already be seen. 
What is new thematically in Beethoven is a climax of emotional expression 
as well as a greater range of emotions expressed, plus the centrality of 
the motif of the struggle for individual freedom, precisely as the defeat of 
the Luddites in England presaged the suppression of emotional expressivity 
and individual freedom in society at large. Much unlike say, Bach, he began 
from the fact of alienation and ultimately refused to reconcile in his music 
that which is unreconciled in society; this can be seen most clearly in his 
last quartets, which recall the incompleteness and anguish of the late 
music of Mozart. 

The Romantic art par excellence, music came to be thought of as a 
uniquely privileged medium. Indeed, it was in the Beethovenian period, or 
shortly thereafter, that the composer was ceded the status of philosopher, 
contrasting sharply with the role of virtual servant that Haydn and Mozart 
had occupied. Perhaps the so-called “redemptive force” of music, to cross 
over to the social terrain, was nowhere more in evidence than with a 
performance of Auber’s opera, La Muette de Port ici, which provoked the 
outbreak of revolution in Brussels in 1830. Later in the century, Walter 
Pater’s assessment that “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of 
music” bespoke not only music as the culmination of the arts but reflected 
its forcefulness at the height of tonality. It is also in this latter sense, as 
appreciation of tonality, that Schopenhauer celebrated music in a way 
unrivaled in philosophical writing, as more powerful than words and the 
direct expression of inner consciousness. Adorno spoke of the “bursting 
longing of Romanticism” and Marothy discussed its frequented themes of 
loneliness and nostalgia, the effort to capture the sense of something that 
is irretrievably lost. Along these lines, the drama of rescue was not only the 
literary fashion of the day but is often found in music, such as Beethoven’s 
Fidelio. Schubert could ask whether there was such a thing as joyous music, 
as if in response to an industrializing Europe, and was answered by the 
elegiac, resigned Brahms and the pessimist Mahler in the later Romantic era. 

Harmony was the special realm of the period; orchestral groupings 
favored the massed and unified deployment of each instrumental family to 
stretch and intensify the central concern with pitch relationships to convey 
meaning, over the other aspects of music. It was the age of great orchestral 



forces designed to exploit the compulsive powers of tone, proceeding via 
the coordination of diverse specialist function. In this manner, and with an 
increasingly systematic conception of musical structure, Romantic music 
paralleled the perfection of industrial method. As the nineteenth century 
progressed, a growing number of composers felt that musical language was 
becoming trapped under the syntactical and formal constraints of tonality, 
an overly standardized harmonic vocabulary bound to empty symmetrical 
regularities. Flattening out under the weight of its own habits, music 
seemed to be losing its former expressive power. 

Like capital, then at the height of its initial expansiveness, the 
modem orchestra pursued the illusion of indefinite growth. But Romantic 
overstatement and giganticism (i.e. Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand) were 
used, more often than not, to create a limited range of homogenized sounds, 
a uniformity of timbre. 

To speak of expansion calls to mind Wagner’s attempt at a simple, 
economical repertoire opera — the resultant work was the five-hour, 
gorgeous agony of Tristan and Isolde. Or Wagner’s Ring series, based on 
the Nibelungen myth, that epic of perpetual lust and death by which he 
desired to outdo all conceivable spectacles, and which most likely prompted 
Nietzsche to judge, “There is a deep significance in the fact that the rise of 
Wagner coincides with the rise of empire.” An operatic portrait of Kaiser 
Wilhelm I beside a swan and wearing a Lohengrin helmet suggests the debt 
owed him for celebrating and reconsecrating the social order of the second 
German Reich. If Tristan was the prelude to the political development 
of Bismarckian Germany, the latter found its authoritarian and mystical 
justification in Parsifal’s pseudo-erotic religiosity. 

Wagner intended a merger of all the arts into a higher form of opera 
and in this project it seemed to him that he had superseded dogmatic 
religion. Such an aim projected the complete domination of the spectator 
by means of the grandeur and pomposity of his musical productions, their 
perfumed sultriness and bombardment of the senses. His boast was no less 
than that, owing to his neopagan, neonationalist achievement, “Church and 
state will be abolished,” having outlived their usefulness. Thus his aims for 
art were more grandiose than those of industrial capitalism itself and spoke 
its language of power. 

And yet Wagner also, and more importantly, represents the full decay 
of the classic harmonic system. Despite all the bombast and striving for 


Future Primitive Revisited 

a maximum of authority, his is the music of doubt. His music remained 
faithful to at least a latent foundation of tonality but, especially with Tristan, 
the enduring validity of tonal harmony was already disproved. Wagner had 
extended it to its ultimate limits and exhausted its last resources. 

Part of Mahler’s Song of the Earth is marked “without expression.” It 
seems that romanticism after Wagner was turning to ashes, though at the 
same time something new was being foreshadowed. Harmony continued to 
show signs of collapse from within and increasing liberties were taken with 
the previously unlimited sovereignty of the major/minor tonal system (e.g. 
Debussy). Meanwhile, as capital required more “Third World” resources for 
its stability, music too turned imperialist in the sense of much needed folk 
transfusions (e.g. Bartok). 

In 1908 Arnold Schoenberg’s Second Quartet in F Sharp Minor 
attained the decisive break with harmonic development: it was the first 
atonal composition. Fittingly, the movement in question is begun by the 
soprano with the words: “lch ftihle Luft von anderen Planeten” (“I feel air 
from other planets”). 

Adomo saw the radical openness of atonal music as an “expression 
of unmitigated suffering, bound by no convention whatsoever” and as 
such “often hostile to culture” and “containing elements of barbarism.” 
The rejection of tonality indeed enabled expression of the most intense 
subjectivity, the loneliness of the subject under technological domination. 
Nonetheless, the equivalences by which human emotion is universalized 
and objectified are still present, if released from the centralized control of the 
“laws of harmony.” Schoenberg’s “emancipation of the dissonance” allowed 
for the presentation of human passions with unprecedented immediacy 
via dissonant harmonies that have little or no tendency to resolve. The 
avoidance of tonal suggestion and resolution provides the listener with 
precious little support or security: Schoenberg’s atonal work often seems 
almost hysterically emotional due to the absence of points of real repose. “It 
is driven frantically toward the unattainable,” noted Leonard Meyer. 

In this sense, atonality proved to be the most extreme manifestation 
of the general anti-authoritarian upheaval in society of the five or so years 
preceding World War 1. Schoenberg’s abandonment of tonality coincides 
with the abandonment of perspective in painting by Picasso and Kandinsky 
(in 1908). But with these “two great negative gestures” in culture, as they 
have been termed, it was the composer who found himself propelled into a 


Tonality and the totality 

public void. In his steadfast affirmation of alienation, his unwillingness to 
present any scene of human realization that was not feral, difficult, wild, 
Schoenberg’s atonality was too much of a threat and challenge to find much 
acceptance. The expressionist painter August Macke wrote to his colleague 
Franz Marc following an evening of Schoenberg’s chamber music in 1911: 
“Can you imagine music in which tonality has been completely abandoned? 
I was reminded constantly of Kandinsky’s large compositions which are 
written, as it were, in no single key...this music which lets every tone 
stand by itself.” Unfortunately, their feeling for such a radically libertarian 
approach was not shared by many, nor exposed to many. 

As Macke’s letter implies, before the atonal breakout, music had 
achieved meaning through the defined relations of chords to a tonal center. 
Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony summed up the old system well: “It has 
always been the referring of all results to a center, to an emanating point... 
Tonality does not serve: on the contrary it demands to be served.” 

Some defenders of tonality, on the other hand, have adopted a 
frankly socially authoritarian point of view, feeling that more than just 
changes in music were at stake. Levarie and Levy’s Musical Morphology 
(1983), for example, proceeded from the philosophical thesis that “Chaos 
is nonbeing” to the political stance that “The revolt against tonality... is an 
egalitarian revolution.” They further pronounced atonality to be “a general 
contemporary phenomenon,” nothing with displeasure how “Obsessive fear 
of tonality reveals a deep aversion to the concept of hierarchy and rank.” 
This stance is reminiscent of Hindemith’s conclusion that it is impossible 
to deny the validity of hierarchical tone relationships and that there is 
therefore “no such thing as atonal music.” Such comments obviously seek 
to defend more than the dominant musical form: they would preserve 
authority, standardization, hierarchy and whatever cultural grammar 
guarantees a world defined by such values. 

Schoenberg’s atonal experiment suffered as part of the defeat that 
World War I and its aftermath meted out for social dissonance. By the 
early 1920s he had given up the systemless radicalism of atonality. not 
a single “free” note survived. In the absence of a tonal center he inserted 
the totally rule-governed 32-tone set, which, as Adomo judged, “virtually 
extinguishes the subject.” Dodecaphony, or serialism as it is also called, 
constituted a new compliance in the place of tonality, corresponding to a 
new phase of increasingly systematized industrialism introduced with 



World War I. Schoenberg forged new laws to control what was liberated by 
the destruction of the old tonal rules of resolution, new laws that guarantee 
a more complete circulation among all 12 pitches and may be said to speak 
to capital’s growing need for improved recirculation. Serial technique is a 
kind of total integration in which movement is strictly controlled, as in a 
bureaucratically enforced mode. Its conceptual drawback for the dominant 
order is that while greater circulation is achieved via its new standardized 
demands (none of the tones is to be repeated before the other 11 have been 
heard), the concentrated control actually allows for very little production. 
This is seen most clearly in the extreme understatement and brevity in 
much of the work of Webem, Schoenberg’s most successful disciple; at times 
there are as many pauses as notes, while the second of Webern’s early Three 
Pieces for Cello and Piano, for example, lasts only 13 seconds. 

The old harmonic system and its major/minor key points of reference 
provided easily understood places of departure and destination. Serialism 
accords equal use to each note, making any chord feasible: this conveys a 
somewhat homeless, fragmentary sense, suitable to an age of more diffuse, 
traditionless domination. 

As of World War I, art music in general began to fragment. Stravinsky 
led the neoclassicist tendency, which reaffirmed a tonal center despite the 
prevailing winds of change. Grounded firmly in the eighteenth century, it 
seemed to increasing numbers of composers, especially after World War 
II, to be no solution to music’s theoretical problems. Serialist figure Pierre 
Boulez termed its rather flagrantly anachronistic character and refusal 
of development a “mockery.” Neoclassical music seemed to share at least 
something with the new serialist movement, however: an often stark, 
austere character, in line with the general trend toward contraction and 
pessimism. Benjamin Britten seemed preoccupied with the problem of 
suffering, while many of Aaron Copland’s works evoke the loneliness of 
industrial cities, whose very energy is bereft of real vitality. Another major 
traditionalist, Vaughan Williams, ended his masterful Sixth Symphony with 
what can only be described as an objective statement of utter nihilism. 

Meanwhile, by the 1950s, serialism came to be regarded as 
overdetermined, its discipline too severe, so much so that it occasioned 
“chance” music (also called aleatory music or indeterminacy). Closely 
identified popularly with John Cage, chance seemed another part of the 
larger swing away from the subject — which electronic or computer- 



generated composition would take even further — whereby the human 
voice disappears and even the performer is often eliminated. Paradoxically, 
the aesthetic effects produced by random methods are the same as those 
realized by totally ordered music. The minimalism of Reich, Glass and 
others seems a mass-marketed neoconservatism in its pleasant, repetitious 
poverty of ideas. Iannis Xenakis, imitating the brutalism of his teacher 
Le Corbusier, may be said to stand for the height of the cybemetizing, 
computer-worshipping approach: he has sought an “alloy of music and 
technology” based on his research into “logico-mathematical invariants.” 

Art music is today bewildered by a scattering influence, the absence 
of any unifying, common-practice language. And yet the main thrust of 
all of it — if one can use the word thrust in such an enervated context — 
is a cold expressionlessness wholly befitting the enormous increase in 
alienation, objectification and reification of worldwide late capitalism. A 
divided society must finally make do with a divided art: the landscape does 
not “harmonize.” It is an era that perhaps cannot even be given a musical 
ending anymore; it has certainly become both too unruly and too bleak to 
be composed and brought to any tonal, cadenced close. When art and even 
symbolization itself seem false to many, the question occurs, where do the 
forces lie by which music can be kept alive, where is the enchantment? 

“All art is mortal, not merely the individual artifacts but the arts 
themselves,” wrote Spengler. Art — with music in the forefront — may, as 
Hegel speculated it would, be already well within the age of its demise. 
Samuel Lipman’s Music After Modernism (1979) pronounced music’s 
terminal illness, its status as “living on the capital of the explosion of 
creativity which lasted from before Bach to World War I.” The failure of 
tonality’s “creativity” is of course part of an overall entropy in which capital, 
in Lipman’s accidental accuracy of words, turns toxic and unmistakably 
self-destructive. Adomo saw that “There are fewer and fewer works from 
the past that continue to be any good. It is as if the entire supply of culture 
is dwindling.” Some would merely hold on to the museum pieces of tonality 
at all costs and deplore the lack of their resupply. This is the meaning of 
virtually all the standard laments on the subject, such as Constant Lambert’s 
Music Ho! A Stucfy of Music in Decline (1934) or The Agony of Modern Music 
(1955) in which Henry Pleasants told us that “The vein which for three 
hundred years offered a seemingly inexhaustible yield of beautiful music 
has run out,” or Roland Stromberg in After Everything (1975): “It is hard ... 



not to think that serious music has reached the state of total decay.” But the 
same death verdict also comes from non-antiquarians: a 1983 lecture by 
noted serialist composer Milton Babbitt was called “The Unlikely Survival 
of Serious Music.” Earlier, Babbitt, in the face of the unpopularity of 
contemporary art music posed, defiantly and unrealistically, the “complete 
elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition” and 
penned an article entitled “Who Cares If You Listen?” 

The lack of a public for “difficult” music is obvious and noteworthy. If 
Bloch was correct to judge “All we hear is ourselves,” it may also be correct 
to conclude that the listener does not want that element in music that is 
a confrontation with our age. Adomo referred to Schoenberg’s music as 
the reflection of a broken and empty world, evoking a reply from Milan 
Rankovic that “Such a reflection cannot be loved because it reproduces the 
same emptiness in the spirit of the listener.” A further question, relating to 
the limits of art itself, is whether estrangement in music could ever prove 
effective in the struggle against the estrangement of society. 

Modem music, however splintered and removed from the old tonal 
paradigm, has obviously not effaced the popularity of the Baroque, Classical 
and Romantic masters. And in the area of music education tonality continues 
to prevail at all levels; undergraduates in composition classes are instructed 
that the dominant “demands” resolution, that it “must resolve” to the tonic, 
etc., and the students’ musical sense itself is appraised in terms of the once- 
unchallenged harmonic categories and rules. Tonality, as should be clear by 
now, is an ideology in purely musical terms, and one that perseveres. 

One wonders, in fact, why art music, where traditions are revered, 
should have made the break that it has, while all of pop music (and almost 
all jazz, which inherited its harmonic system from classic European tonality), 
where traditions are often despised, has held back. There is no form of 
popular music in the industrial world that exists outside the province of 
mass tonal consciousness. As Richard Norton said so well: “It is the tonality 
of the church, school, office, parade, convention, cafeteria, workplace, airport, 
airplane, automobile, truck, tractor, lounge, lobby, bar, gym, brothel, bank, 
and elevator. Afraid of being without it on foot, humans are presently 
strapping it to their bodies in order to walk to it, run to it, work to it, and 
relax to it. It is everywhere. It is music and it writes the songs.” 

It is also as totally integrated into commercialized mass production 
as any product of the assembly line. The music never changes from the 


Tonality and the Totality 

seemingly eternal formula, despite superficial variations; the “good” song, 
the harmonically marketable song, is one that contains fewer different 
chords than a fourteenth-century ballad. Its expressive potential exists 
solely within the limited confines of consumer choice, wherein, according to 
Horkheimer and Adomo, “Something is provided for everyone so that none 
shall escape.” As a one-dimensional code of consumer society, it is a training 
course in passivity. 

Music, reduced to background noise which no longer takes itself 
seriously, is at the same time a central, omnipresent element of environment, 
more so than ever before. The immersion in tonality is at once distraction 
and pervasive control, as the silence of isolation and boredom must be filled 
in. It comforts us, denying that the world is as reified as it is, reduced to 
making believe that — as Beckett put it in Endgame — anything is happening, 
that anything changes. Pop music also provides a pleasure of identification, 
the immediate experience of collective identity that only massified culture, 
unconscious of the authoritarian ideology which is tonality, can provide. 

Rock music was a “revolution” compared with earlier pop music only 
in the sense of lyrics and tempo (and volume) — no tonal revolution had 
even been dimly conceived. Studies have shown that all types of (tonal) 
music calm the unruly; consider how punk has standardized and cliched 
the musical sneer. It is not only the music of overt pacification, like New 
Age composition, which denies the negative as dangerous and evil in the 
same way that Socialist Realism did, and likewise aids and abets the daily 
oppression. Just as surely it will take more than rockers smashing their 
guitars on stage, even though the limits of tonality may be behind such 
acts, to signal a new age. 

Like language, tonality is historically characterized by its unfreedom. 
We are made tonal by society: only in the elimination of that society will 
occur the superseding of all grammars of domination. 





POSTMODERNISM. Originally a theme within aesthetics, it has colo- 
nized “ever wider areas,” according to Ernesto Laclau, “until it has become 
the new horizon of our cultural, philosophical, and political experience.” 
“The growing conviction,” as Richard Kearney has it, “that human culture 
as we have known now reaching its end.” It is, especially in the U.S., 
the intersection of poststructuralist philosophy and a vastly wider condi- 
tion of society: both specialized ethos and, far more importantly, the ar- 
rival of what modem industrial society has portended. Postmodernism is 
contemporaneity, a morass of deferred solutions on every level, featuring 
ambiguity, the refusal to ponder either origins or ends, as well as the denial 
of oppositional approaches, “the new realism.” Signifying nothing and going 
nowhere, pm [postmodernism] is an inverted millenarianism, a gathering 
fruition of the technological “life” -system of universal capital. It is not ac- 
cidental that Carnegie Mellon University, which in the ‘80s was the first to 
require that all students be equipped with computers, is establishing “the 
nation’s first poststructuralist undergraduate curriculum.” 

Consumer narcissism and a cosmic “what’s the difference?” mark 
the end of philosophy as such and the etching of a landscape, according 
to Kroker and Cook, of “disintegration and decay against the background 
radiation of parody, kitsch and burnout.” Henry Kariel concludes that “for 

postmodernists, it is simply too late to oppose the momentum of industrial 
society.” Surface, novelty, contingency— there are no grounds available 
for criticizing our crisis. If the representative postmodernist resists 
summarizable conclusions, in favor of an alleged pluralism and openness 
of perspective, it is also reasonable (if one is allowed to use such a word) to 
predict that if and when we live in a completely pm culture, we would no 
longer know how to say so. 


In terms of systematic thought, the growing preoccupation with 
language is a key factor accounting for the pm climate of narrowed focus 
and retreat. The so-called “descent into language,” or the “linguistic turn” 
has levied the postmodemist-poststructuralist assumption that language 
constitutes the human world and the human world constitutes the whole 
world. For most of this century language has been moving to center stage 
in philosophy, among figures as diverse as Wittgenstein, Quine, Heidegger, 
and Gadamer, while growing attention to communication theory, linguistics, 
cybernetics, and computer languages demonstrates a similar emphasis over 
several decades in science and technology. This very pronounced turn toward 
language itself was embraced by Foucault as a “decisive leap towards a wholly 
new form of thought.” Less positively, it can be at least partially explained 
in terms of pessimism following the ebbing of the oppositional moment of 
the ‘60s. The 70s witnessed an alarming withdrawal into what Edward Said 
called the “labyrinth of textuality,” as contrasted with the sometimes more 
insurrectionary intellectual activity of the preceding period. 

Perhaps it isn’t paradoxical that “the fetish of the textual,” as Ben 
Agger judged, “beckons in an age when intellectuals are dispossessed of their 
words.” Language is more and more debased; drained of meaning, especially 
in its public usage. No longer can even words be counted on, and this is 
part of a larger anti-theory current, behind which stands a much larger 
defeat than the ‘60s: that of the whole train of Enlightenment rationality. 
We have depended on language as the supposedly sound and transparent 



handmaiden of reason and where has it gotten us? Auschwitz, Hiroshima, 
mass psychic misery, impending destruction of the planet, to name a few. 
Enter postmodernism, with its seemingly bizarre and fragmented turns 
and twists. Edith Wyschograd’s Saints and Postmodernism (1990) not only 
testifies to the ubiquity of the pm “approach” — there are apparently no 
fields outside its ken — but also comments cogently on the new direction: 
“postmodernism as a “philosophical” and “literary” discursive style cannot 
straightforwardly appeal to the techniques of reason, themselves the 
instruments of theory, but must forge new and necessarily arcane means 
for undermining the pieties of reason.” 

The immediate antecedent of postmodemism/poststructuralism, 
reigning in the ‘50s and much of the ‘60s, was organized around the 
centrality it accorded the linguistic model. Structuralism provided the 
premise that language constitutes our only means of access to the world 
of objects and experience and its extension, that meaning arises wholly 
from the play of differences within cultural sign systems. Levi-Strauss, 
for example, argued that the key to anthropology lies in the uncovering of 
unconscious social laws (e.g. those that regulate marriage ties and kinship), 
which are structured like language. It was the Swiss linguist Saussure who 
stressed, in a move very influential to postmodernism, that meaning resides 
not in a relationship between an utterance and that to which it refers, but 
in the relationship of signs to one another. This Saussurian belief in the 
enclosed, self-referential nature of language implies that everything is 
determined within language, leading to the scrapping of such quaint notions 
as alienation, ideology, repression, etc. and concluding that language and 
consciousness are virtually the same. 

On this trajectory, which rejects the view of language as an external 
means deployed by consciousness, appears the also very influential neo- 
Freudian, Jacques Lacan. For Lacan, not only is consciousness thoroughly 
permeated by language and without existence for itself apart from language, 
even the “unconscious is structured like a language.” 

Earlier thinkers, most notably Nietzsche and Heidegger, had already 
suggested that a different language or a changed relationship to language 
might somehow bring new and important insights. With the linguistic turn 
of more recent times, even the concept of an individual who thinks as the 
basis of knowledge becomes shaky. Saussure discovered that “language is 
not a function of the speaking subject,” the primacy of language displacing 


The Catastrophe of postmodernism 

who it is that gives voice to it. Roland Barthes, whose career joins the 
structuralist and poststructuralist periods, decided “It is language that 
speaks, not the author,” paralleled by Althusser’s observation that history is 
“a process without a subject.” 

If the subject is felt to be essentially a function of language, its stifling 
mediation and that of the symbolic order in general ascends toward the top 
of the agenda. Thus does postmodernism flail about trying to communicate 
what lies beyond language, “to present the unpresentable.” Meanwhile, 
given the radical doubt introduced as to the availability to us of a referent 
in the world outside of language, the real fades from consideration. Jacques 
Derrida, the pivotal figure of the postmodernism ethos, proceeds as if 
the connection between words and the world were arbitrary. The object 
world plays no role for him. The exhaustion of modernism and the rise of 


But before turning to Derrida, a few more comments on precursors 
and the wider change in culture. Postmodernism raises questions about 
communication and meaning, so that the category of the aesthetic, for 
one, becomes problematic. For modernism, with its sunnier belief in 
representation, art and literature held at least some promise for providing 
a vision of fulfillment or understanding. Until the end of modernism, “high 
culture” was seen as a repository of moral and spiritual wisdom. Now there 
seems to be no such belief, the ubiquity of the question of language perhaps 
telling as to the vacancy left by the failure of other candidates of promising 
starting points of human imagination. In the ‘60s modernism seems to have 
reached the end of its development, the austere canon of its painting (e.g. 
Rothko, Reinhardt) giving way to pop art’s uncritical espousal of the consumer 
culture’s commercial vernacular. Postmodernism, and not just in the arts, is 
modernism without the hopes and dreams that made modernity bearable. 

A widespread “fast food” tendency is seen in the visual arts, in the 
direction of easily consumable entertainment. Howard Fox finds that 



“theatricality may be the single most pervasive property of postmodern 
art.” A decadence or exhaustion of development is also detected in the 
dark paintings of an Eric Fischl, where often a kind of horror seems to lurk 
just below the surface. This quality links Fischl, America’s quintessential 
pm painter, to the equally sinister Twin Peaks and pm’s quintessential 
television figure, David Lynch. The image, since Warhol, is self-consciously 
a mechanically reproducible commodity and this is the bottom-line reason 
for both the depthlessness and the common note of eeriness and foreboding. 

Postmodern art’s oft-noted eclecticism is an arbitrary recycling of 
fragments from everywhere, especially the past, often taking the form of 
parody and kitsch. Demoralized, derealized, dehistoricized: art that can no 
longer take itself seriously. The image no longer refers primarily to some 
“original,” situated elsewhere in the “real” world; it increasingly refers only 
to other images. In this way it reflects how lost we are, how removed from 
nature, in the ever more mediated world of technological capitalism. 

The term postmodernism was first applied, in the 70s, to architecture. 
Christopher Jencks wrote of an anti-planning, pro-pluralism approach, the 
abandoning of modernism’s dream of pure form in favor of listening to 
“the multiple languages of the people." More honest are Robert Venturi’s 
celebration of Las Vegas and Piers Gough’s admission that postmodern 
architecture is no more caring for people than was modernist architecture. 
The arches and columns laid over modernist boxes are a thin facade of 
playfulness and individuality, which scarcely transforms the anonymous 
concentrations of wealth and power underneath. 

Postmodernist writers question the very grounds for literature instead 
of continuing to create the illusion of an external world. The novel redirects 
its attention to itself; Donald Barthelme, for example, writes stories that 
seem to always remind the reader that they are artifices. By protesting 
against statement, point of view and other patterns of representation, pm 
literature exhibits its discomfort with the forms that tame and domesticate 
cultural products. As the wider world becomes more artificial and meaning 
less subject to our control, the new approach would rather reveal the 
illusion even at the cost of no longer saying anything. Here as elsewhere art 
is struggling against itself, its prior claims to help us understand the world 
evaporating while even the concept of imagination loses its potency. 

For some the loss of narrative voice or point of view is equivalent to 
the loss of our ability to locate ourselves historically. For postmodernists 



this loss is a kind of liberation. Raymond Federman, for instance, glories 
in the coming fiction that “will be seemingly devoid of any meaning... 
deliberately illogical, irrational, unrealistic, non sequitur, and incoherent.” 
Fantasy, on the rise for decades, is a common form of the postmodern, 
carrying with it the reminder that the fantastic confronts civilization 
with the very forces it must repress for its survival. But it is a fantasy 
that, paralleling both deconstruction and high levels of cynicism and 
resignation in society, does not believe in itself to the extent of very much 
understanding or communicating. Pm writers seem to smother in the folds 
of language, conveying little else than their ironic stance regarding more 
traditional literature’s pretensions to truth and meaning. Perhaps typical is 
Laurie Moore’s 1990 novel Like Life, whose title and content reveal a retreat 
from living and an inversion of the American Dream, in which things can 
only get worse. 


Postmodernism subverts two of the overarching tenets of 
Enlightenment humanism: the power of language to shape the world and 
the power of consciousness to shape a self. Thus we have the postmodernist 
void, the general notion that the yearning for emancipation and freedom 
promised by humanist principles of subjectivity cannot be satisfied. Pm 
views the self as a linguistic convention; as William Burroughs put it, “Your 
“I” is a completely illusory concept.” 

It is obvious that the celebrated ideal of individuality has been under 
pressure for a long time. Capitalism in fact has made a career of celebrating 
the individual while destroying him/her. And the works of Marx and Freud 
have done much to expose the largely misdirected and naive belief in the 
sovereign, rational Kantian self in charge of reality, with their more recent 
structuralist interpreters, Althusser and Lacan, contributing to and updating 
the effort. But this time the pressure is so extreme that the term “individual” 
has been rendered obsolete, replaced by “subject,” which always includes the 
aspect of being subjected (as in the older “a subject of the king,” for example). 



Even some libertarian radicals, such as the Interrogations group in France, 
join in the postmodernist chorus to reject the individual as a criterion for 
value due to the debasing of the category by ideology and history. 

So pm reveals that autonomy has largely been a myth and cherished 
ideals of mastery and will are similarly misguided. But if we are promised 
herewith a new and serious attempt at demystifying authority, concealed 
behind the guises of a bourgeois humanist “freedom,” we actually get a 
dispersal of the subject so radical as to render it impotent, even nonexistent, 
as any kind of agent at all. Who or what is left to achieve a liberation, or is 
that just one more pipe dream? The postmodern stance wants it both ways: 
to put the thinking person “under erasure,” while the very existence of its 
own critique depends on discredited ideas like subjectivity. Fred Dallmayr, 
acknowledging the widespread appeal of contemporary anti-humanism, 
warns that primary casualties are reflection and a sense of values. To assert 
that we are instances of language foremost is obviously to strip away 
our capacity to grasp the whole, at a time when we are urgently required 
to do just that. Small wonder that to some, pm amounts, in practice, to 
merely a liberalism without the subject, while feminists who try to define 
or reclaim an authentic and autonomous female identity would also likely 
be unpersuaded. 

The postmodern subject, what is presumably left of subjecthood, 
seems to be mainly the personality constructed by and for technological 
capital, described by the Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton as a 
“dispersed, decentered network of libidinal attachments, emptied of ethical 
substance and psychical interiority, the ephemeral function of this or 
that act of consumption, media experience, sexual relationship, trend or 
fashion.” If Eagleton’s definition of today’s non-subject as announced by 
pm is unfaithful to their point of view, it is difficult to see where, to find 
grounds for a distancing from his scathing summary. With postmodernism 
even alienation dissolves, for there is no longer a subject to be alienated! 
Contemporary fragmentation and powerlessness could hardly be heralded 
more completely, or existing anger and disaffection more thoroughly ignored. 


The Catastrophe of Postmodernism 


Enough, for now, on background and general traits. The most influential 
specific postmodern approach has been Jacques Derrida’s, known since the 
‘60s as deconstruction. Postmodernism in philosophy means above all the 
writings of Derrida, and this earliest and most extreme outlook has found 
a resonance well beyond philosophy, in the popular culture and its mores. 

Certainly the “linguistic turn” bears on the emergence of Derrida, 
causing David Wood to call deconstruction “an absolutely unavoidable move 
in philosophy today,” as thought negotiates its inescapable predicament 
as written language. That language is not innocent or neutral but bears a 
considerable number of presuppositions it has been his career to develop, 
exposing what he sees as the fundamentally self-contradictory nature 
of human discourse. The mathematician Kurt Godel’s “Incompleteness 
Theorem” states that any formal system can be either consistent or 
complete, but not both. In rather parallel fashion, Derrida claims that 
language is constantly turning against itself so that, analyzed closely, we 
can neither say what we mean or mean what we say. But like semiologists 
before him, Derrida also suggests, at the same time, that a deconstructive 
method could demystify the ideological contents of all texts, interpreting 
all human activities as essentially texts. The basic contradiction and cover- 
up strategy inherent in the metaphysics of language in its widest sense 
might be laid bare and a more intimate kind of knowing result. 

What works against this latter claim, with its political promise 
constantly hinted at by Derrida, is precisely the content of deconstruction; 
it sees language as a constantly moving independent force that disallows a 
stabilizing of meaning or definite communication, as referred to above. This 
internally-generated flux he called “differance” and this is what calls the 
very idea of meaning to collapse, along with the self-referential nature of 
language, which, as noted previously, says that there is no space outside of 
language, no “out there” for meaning to exist in anyway. Intention and the 
subject are overwhelmed, and what is revealed are not any “inner truths” 
but an endless proliferation of possible meanings generated by differance, 



the principle that characterizes language. Meaning within language is also 
made elusive by Derrida’s insistence that language is metaphorical and 
cannot therefore directly convey truth, a notion taken from Nietzsche, 
one which erases the distinction between philosophy and literature. All 
these insights supposedly contribute to the daring and subversive nature 
of deconstruction, but they surely provoke some basic questions as well. 
If meaning is indeterminate, how are Derrida’s argument and terms not 
also indeterminate, un-pin-downable? He has replied to critics, for example, 
that they are unclear as to his meaning, while his “meaning” is that there 
can be no clear, definable meaning. And though his entire project is in an 
important sense aimed at subverting all systems” claims to any kind of 
transcendent truth, he raises difference to the transcendent status of any 
philosophical first principle. 

For Derrida, it has been the valorizing of speech over writing that 
has caused all of Western thought to overlook the downfall that language 
itself causes philosophy. By privileging the spoken word a false sense of 
immediacy is produced, the invalid notion that in speaking the thing itself 
is present and representation overcome. But speech is no more “authentic” 
than the written word, not at all immune from the built-in failure of language 
to accurately or definitely deliver the (representational) goods. It is the 
misplaced desire for presence that characterizes Western metaphysics, an 
unreflected desire for the success of representation. It is important to note 
that because Derrida rejects the possibility of an unmediated existence, he 
assails the efficacy of representation but not the category itself. He mocks 
the game but plays it just the same. Difference (later simply “difference’) 
shades into indifference, due to the unavailability of truth or meaning, and 
joins the cynicism at large. 

Early on, Derrida discussed philosophy’s false steps in the area of 
presence by reference to Husserl’s tortured pursuit of it. Next he developed 
his theory of “grammatology,” in which he restored writing to its proper 
primacy as against the West’s phonocentric, or speech-valued, bias. This 
was mainly accomplished by critiques of major figures who committed the 
sin of phonocentrism, including Rousseau, Heidegger, Saussure, and Levi- 
Strauss, which is not to overlook his great indebtedness to the latter three 
of these four. 

As if remembering the obvious implications of his deconstructive 
approach, Derrida’s writings shift in the 70s from the earlier, fairly 



straightforward philosophical discussions. Glas (1974) is a mishmash of 
Hegel and Gent, in which argument is replaced by free association and 
bad puns. Though baffling to even his warmest admirers, Glas certainly is 
in keeping with the tenet of the unavoidable ambiguity of language and 
a will to subvert the pretensions of orderly discourse. Spurs (1978) is a 
book-length study of Nietzsche that ultimately finds its focus in nothing 
Nietzsche published, but in a handwritten note in the margin of one of 
his notebooks: “1 have forgotten my umbrella.” Endless, undecidable 
possibilities exist as to the meaning or importance — if any — of this scrawled 
comment. This, of course, is Derrida’s point, to suggest that the same can 
be said for everything Nietzsche wrote. The place for thought, according 
to deconstruction, is clearly (er, let us say unclearly) with the relative, the 
fragmented, the marginal. 

Meaning is certainly not something to be pinned down, if it exists at 
all. Commenting on Plato’s Phaedrus, the master of de-composition goes so 
far as to assert that “like any text [it] couldn’t not be involved, at least in 
a virtual, dynamic, lateral manner, with all the words that composed the 
system of the Greek language.” 

Related is Derrida’s opposition to binary opposites, like literal/ 
metaphorical, serious/playful, deep/superficial, nature/culture, ad infinitum. 
He sees these as basic conceptual hierarchies, mainly smuggled in by 
language itself, which provide the illusion of definition or orientation. He 
further claims that the deconstructive work of overturning these pairings, 
which valorize one of the two over the other, leads to a political and social 
overturning of actual, non-conceptual hierarchies. But to automatically 
refuse all binary oppositions is itself a metaphysical proposition; it in fact 
bypasses politics and history out of a failure to see in opposites, however 
imprecise they may be, anything but a linguistic reality. In the dismantling 
of every binarism, deconstruction aims at “conceiving difference without 
opposition.” What in a smaller dosage would seem a salutary approach, 
a skepticism about neat, either/or characterizations, proceeds to the very 
questionable prescription of refusing all unambiguity. To say that there can 
be no yes or no position is tantamount to a paralysis of relativism, in which 
“impotence” becomes the valorized partner to “opposition.” 

Perhaps the case of Paul De Man, who extended and deepened 
Derrida’s seminal deconstructive positions (surpassing him, in the opinion 
of many), is instructive. Shortly after the death of De Man in 1985, it was 



discovered that as a young man he had written several anti-Semitic, pro- 
Nazi newspaper articles in occupied Belgium. The status of this brilliant 
Yale deconstructor, and indeed to some, the moral and philosophical value 
of deconstruction itself, were called into question by the sensational 
revelation. De Man, like Derrida, had stressed “the duplicity, the confusion, 
the untruth that we take for granted in the use of language.” Consistent 
with this, albeit to his discredit, in my opinion, was Derrida’s tortuous 
commentary on De Man’s collaborationist period: in sum, “how can we 
judge, who has the right to say?” A shabby testimony for deconstruction, 
considered in any way as a moment of the anti-authoritarian. 

Derrida announced that deconstruction “instigates the subversion of 
every kingdom.” In fact, it has remained within the safely academic realm 
of inventing ever more ingenious textual complications to keep itself in 
business and avoid reflecting on its own political situation. One of Derrida’s 
most central terms, dissemination, describes language, under the principle 
of difference, as not so much a rich harvest of meanings but a kind of endless 
loss and spillage, with meaning appearing everywhere and evaporating 
virtually at once. This flow of language, ceaseless and unsatisfying, is a 
most accurate parallel to that of the heart of consumer capital and its 
endless circulation of non-significance. Derrida thus unwittingly eternalizes 
and universalizes dominated life by rendering human communication in 
its image. The “every kingdom" he would see deconstruction subverting is 
instead extended and deemed absolute. 

Derrida represents both the well-travelled French tradition 
of explication de texte and a reaction against the Gallic veneration of 
Cartesian classicist language with its ideals of clarity and balance. 
Deconstruction emerged also, to a degree, as part of the original element 
of the near-revolution of 1968, namely the student revolt against rigidified 
French higher education. Some of its key terms (e.g. dissemination) are 
borrowed from Blanchot’s reading of Heidegger, which is not to deny a 
significant originality in Derridean thought. Presence and representation 
constantly call each other into question, revealing the underlying system as 
infinitely fissured, and this in itself is an important contribution. 

Unfortunately, to transform metaphysics into the question of writing, 
in which meanings virtually choose themselves and thus one discourse 
(and therefore mode of action) cannot be demonstrated to be better than 
another, seems less than radical. Deconstruction is now embraced by the 



heads of English departments, professional societies, and other bodies-in- 
good-standing because it raises the issue of representation itself so weakly. 
Derrida’s deconstruction of philosophy admits that it must leave intact the 
very concept whose lack of basis it exposes. While finding the notion of 
a language-independent reality untenable, neither does deconstruction 
promise liberation from the famous “prison house of language.” The essence 
of language, the primacy of the symbolic, are not really tackled, but are 
shown to be as inescapable as they are inadequate to fulfillment. No 
exit; as Derrida declared: “It is not a question of releasing oneself into an 
unrepressive new order (there are none).” 


If deconstruction’s contribution is mainly just an erosion of our 
assurance of reality, it forgets that reality — advertising and mass culture 
to mention just two superficial examples — has already accomplished 
this. Thus this quintessentially postmodern point of view bespeaks the 
movement of thinking from decadence to its elegiac, or post-thought phase, 
or as John Fekete summarized it, “a most profound crisis of the Western 
mind, a most profound loss of nerve.” 

Today’s overload of representation serves to underline the radical 
impoverishment of life in technological class society — technology is 
deprivation. The classical theory of representation held that meaning or 
truth preceded and prescribed the representations that communicated 
it. But we may now inhabit a postmodern culture where the image has 
become less the expression of an individual subject than the commodity 
of an anonymous consumerist technology. Ever more mediated, life in the 
Information Age is increasingly controlled by the manipulation of signs, 
symbols, marketing and testing data, etc. Our time, says Derrida, is “a time 
without nature.” 

All formulations of the postmodern agree in detecting a crisis of 
representation. Derrida, as noted, began a challenge of the nature of the 
philosophical project itself as grounded in representation, raising some 



unanswerable questions about the relationship between representation 
and thought. Deconstruction undercuts the epistemological claims of 
representation, showing that language, for example, is inadequate to the 
task of representation. But this undercutting avoids tackling the repressive 
nature of its subject, insisting, again, that pure presence, a space beyond 
representation, can only be a utopian dream. There can be no unmediated 
contact or communication, only signs and representations; deconstruction 
is a search for presence and fulfillment interminably, necessarily, deferred. 

Jacques Lacan, sharing the same resignation as Derrida, at least 
reveals more concerning the malign essence of representation. Extending 
Freud, he determined that the subject is both constituted and alienated by 
the entry into the symbolic order, namely, into language. While denying the 
possibility of a return to a pre-language state in which the broken promise 
of presence might be honored, he could at least see the central, crippling 
stroke that is the submission of free-ranging desires to the symbolic 
world, the surrender of uniqueness to language. Lacan termed jouissance 
unspeakable because it could properly occur only outside of language: that 
happiness which is the desire for a world without the fracture of money or 
writing, a society without representation. 

The inability to generate symbolic meaning is, somewhat ironically, 
a basic problem for postmodernism. It plays out its stance at the frontier 
between what can be represented and what cannot, a half-way resolution 
(at best) that refuses to refuse representation. (Instead of providing the 
arguments for the view of the symbolic as repressive and alienating, the 
reader is referred to the first five essays of my Elements of Refusal [Left 
Bank Books, 1988], which deal with time, language, number, art, and 
agriculture as cultural estrangements owing to symbolization.) Meanwhile 
an estranged and exhausted public loses interest in the alleged solace of 
culture, and with the deepening and thickening of mediation emerges 
the discovery that perhaps this was always the meaning of culture. It is 
certainly not out of character, however, to find that postmodernism does 
not recognize reflection on the origins of representation, insisting as it does 
on the impossibility of unmediated existence. 

In response to the longing for the lost wholeness of pre-civilization, 
postmodernism says that culture has become so fundamental to human 
existence that there is no possibility of delving down under it. This, of course, 
recalls Freud, who recognized the essence of civilization as a suppression of 


The Catastrophe of Postmodernism 

freedom and wholeness, but who decided that work and culture were more 
important. Freud at least was honest enough to admit the contradiction or 
non-reconciliation involved in opting for the crippling nature of civilization, 
whereas the postmodernists do not. 

Floyd Merrell found that “a key, perhaps the principal key to Derridean 
thought" was Derrida’s decision to place the question of origins off limits. 
And so while hinting throughout his work at a complicity between the 
fundamental assumptions of Western thought and the violences and 
repressions that have characterized Western civilization, Derrida has 
centrally, and very influentially, repudiated all notions of origins. Causative 
thinking, after all, is one of the objects of scorn for postmodernists. “Nature” 
is an illusion, so what could “unnatural” mean? In place of the situationists’ 
wonderful “Under the pavement it’s the beach,” we have Foucault’s famous 
repudiation, in The Order of Things, of the whole notion of the “repressive 
hypothesis.” Freud gave us an understanding of culture as stunting and 
neurosis-generating; pm tells us that culture is all we can ever have, and 
that its foundations, if they exist, are not available to our understanding. 
Postmodernism is apparently what we are left with when the modernization 
process is complete and nature is gone for good. 

Not only does pm echo Beckett’s comment in Endgame, “there’s no 
more nature,” but it also denies that there ever was any recognizable space 
outside of language and culture. “Nature,” declared Derrida in discussing 
Rousseau, “has never existed.” Again, alienation is ruled out; that concept 
necessarily implies an idea of authenticity which postmodernism finds 
unintelligible. In this vein, Derrida cited “the loss of what has never taken 
place, of a self-presence which has never been given but only dreamed of...” 
Despite the limitations of structuralism, Levi-Strauss” sense of affiliation 
with Rousseau, on the other hand, bore witness to his search for origins. 
Refusing to rule out liberation, either in terms of beginnings or goals, Levi- 
Strauss never ceased to long for an “intact” society, a non-fractured world 
where immediacy had not yet been broken. For this Derrida, pejoratively to 
be sure, presents Rousseau as a utopian and Levi-Strauss as an anarchist, 
cautioning against a “step further toward a sort of original anarchy,” which 
would be only a dangerous delusion. 

The real danger consists in not challenging, at the most basic level, 
the alienation and domination threatening to completely overcome nature, 
what is left of the natural in the world and within ourselves. Marcuse 


Future Primitive Revisited 

discerned that “the memory of gratification is at the origin of all thinking, 
and the impulse to recapture past gratification is the hidden driving power 
behind the process of thought.” The question of origins also involves the 
whole question of the birth of abstraction and indeed of philosophical 
conceptuality as such, and Marcuse came close, in his search for what would 
constitute a state of being without repression, to confronting culture itself. 
He certainly never quite escaped the impression “that something essential 
had been forgotten” by humanity. Similar is the brief pronouncement by 
Novalis, “Philosophy is homesickness.” By comparison, Kroker and Cook 
are undeniably correct in concluding that “the postmodern culture is a 
forgetting, a forgetting of origins and destinations.” 


Turning to other poststructuralist/postmodem figures, Roland 
Barthes, earlier in his career a major structuralist thinker, deserves 
mention. His Writing Degree Zero expressed the hope that language can be 
used in a utopian way and that there are controlling codes in culture that 
can be broken. By the early 70s, however, he fell into line with Derrida in 
seeing language as a metaphorical quagmire, whose metaphoricity is not 
recognized. Philosophy is befuddled by its own language and language in 
general cannot claim mastery of what it discusses. With The Empire of Signs 
(1970), Barthes had already renounced any critical, analytical intention. 
Ostensibly about Japan, this book is presented “without claiming to depict 
or analyze any reality whatsoever.” Various fragments deal with cultural 
forms as diverse as haiku and slot machines, as parts of a sort of anti- 
utopian landscape wherein forms possess no meaning and all is surface. 
Empire may qualify as the first fully postmodern offering, and by the mid- 
70s its author’s notion of the pleasure of the text carried forward the same 
Derridean disdain for belief in the validity of public discourse. Writing 
had become an end in itself, a merely personal aesthetic the overriding 
consideration. Before his death in 1980, Barthes had explicitly denounced 
“any intellectual mode of writing,” especially anything smacking of the 


The Catastrophe of Postmodernism 

political. By the time of his final work, Barthes by Barthes, the hedonism of 
words, paralleling a real-life dandyism, considered concepts not in terms of 
their validity or invalidity but only for their efficacy as tactics of writing. 

In 1985 AIDS claimed the most widely known influence on 
postmodernism, Michel Foucault. Sometimes called “the philosopher of 
the death of man” and considered by many the greatest of Nietzsche’s 
modem disciples, his wide-ranging historical studies (e.g. on madness, 
penal practices, sexuality) made him very well known and in themselves 
suggest differences between Foucault and the relatively more abstract and 
ahistorical Derrida. Structuralism, as noted, had already forcefully devalued 
the individual on largely linguistic grounds, whereas Foucault characterized 
“man (as) only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a 
simple fold in our knowledge that will soon disappear.” His emphasis lies 
in exposing “man” as that which is represented and brought forth as an 
object, specifically as a virtual invention of the modem human sciences. 
Despite an idiosyncratic style, Foucault’s works were much more popular 
than those of Horkheimer and Adorno (e.g. The Dialectic of Enlightenment ) 
and Erving Goffman, in the same vein of revealing the hidden agenda of 
bourgeois rationality. He pointed to the “individualizing” tactic at work 
in the key institutions in the early 1800s (the family, work, medicine, 
psychiatry, education), bringing out their normalizing, disciplinary roles 
within emerging capitalist modernity, as the “individual” is created by and 
for the dominant order. 

Foucault, typically pm, rejects originary thinking and the notion that 
there is a “reality” behind or underneath the prevailing discourse of an era. Like- 
wise, the subject is a delusion essentially created by discourse, an “I” created 
out of the ruling linguistic usages. And so his detailed historical narratives, 
termed “archaeologies” of knowledge, are offered instead of theoretical over- 
views, as if they carried no ideological or philosophical assumptions. For 
Foucault there are no foundations of the social to be apprehended outside the 
contexts of various periods, or epistemes, as he called them; the foundations 
change from one episteme to another. The prevailing discourse, which 
constitutes its subjects, is seemingly self -forming; this is a rather unhelpful 
approach to history resulting primarily from the fact that Foucault makes 
no reference to social groups, but focuses entirely on systems of thought. A 
further problem arises from his view that the episteme of an age cannot be 
known by those who labor within it. If consciousness is precisely what, by 



Foucault’s own account, fails to be aware of its relativism orto know what it 
would have looked like in previous epistemes, then Foucault’s own elevated, 
encompassing awareness is impossible. This difficulty is acknowledged at 
the end of The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972), but remains unanswered, a 
rather glaring and obvious problem. 

The dilemma of postmodernism is this: how can the status and 
validity of its theoretical approaches be ascertained if neither truth nor 
foundations for knowledge are admitted? If we remove the possibility of 
rational foundations or standards, on what basis can we operate? How 
can we understand what the society is that we oppose, let alone come 
to share such an understanding? Foucault’s insistence on a Nietzschean 
perspectivism translates into the irreducible pluralism of interpretation. 
He relativized knowledge and truth only insofar as these notions attach 
to thought-systems other than his own, however. When pressed on this 
point, Foucault admitted to being incapable of rationally justifying his 
own opinions. Thus the liberal Habermas claims that postmodern thinkers 
like Foucault, Deleuze, and Lyotard are “neoconservative” for offering no 
consistent argumentation to move in one social direction rather than 
another. The pm embrace of relativism (or “pluralism’) also means there is 
nothing to prevent the perspective of one social tendency from including a 
claim for the right to dominate another, in the absence of the possibility of 
determining standards. 

The topic of power, in fact, was a central one to Foucault and the ways 
he treated it are revealing. He wrote of the significant institutions of modem 
society as united by a control intentionality, a “carceral continuum” that 
expresses the logical finale of capitalism, from which there is no escape. But 
power itself, he determined, is a grid or field of relations in which subjects 
are constituted as both the products and the agents of power. Everything 
thus partakes of power and so it is no good trying to find a “fundamental,” 
oppressive power to fight against. Modem power is insidious and “comes 
from everywhere.” Like God, it is everywhere and nowhere at once. 

Foucault finds no beach underneath the paving stones, no “natural” 
order at all. There is only the certainty of successive regimes of power, each 
one of which must somehow be resisted. But Foucault’s characteristically 
pm aversion to the whole notion of the human subject makes it quite 
difficult to see where such resistance might spring from, notwithstanding 
his view that there is no resistance to power that is not a variant of 


The Catastrophe of postmodernism 

power itself. Regarding the latter point, Foucault reached a further dead- 
end in considering the relationship of power to knowledge. He came to 
see them as inextricably and ubiquitously linked, directly implying one 
another. The difficulties in continuing to say anything of substance in 
light of this interrelationship caused Foucault to eventually give up on a 
theory of power. The determinism involved meant, for one thing, that his 
political involvement became increasingly slight. It is not hard to see why 
Foucaultism was greatly boosted by the media, while the situationists, for 
example, were blacked out. 

Castoriadis once referred to Foucault’s ideas on power and opposition 
to it as, “Resist if it amuses you — but without a strategy, because then you 
would no longer be proletarian, but power." Foucault’s own activism had 
attempted to embody the empiricist dream of a theory — and ideology — free 
approach, that of the “specific intellectual” who participates in particular, 
local struggles. This tactic sees theory used only concretely, as ad hoc “tool 
kit” methods for specific campaigns. Despite the good intentions, however, 
limiting theory to discrete, perishable instrumental “tools” not only refuses 
an explicit overview of society but accepts the general division of labor 
which is at the heart of alienation and domination. The desire to respect 
differences, local knowledge and the like refuses a reductive, totalitarian- 
tending overvaluing of theory, but only to accept the atomization of late 
capitalism with its splintering of life into the narrow specialties that are 
the province of so many experts. If “we are caught between the arrogance 
of surveying the whole and the timidity of inspecting the parts,” as 
Rebecca Comay aptly put it, how does the second alternative (Foucault’s) 
represent an advance over liberal reformism in general? This seems an 
especially pertinent question when one remembers how much Foucault’s 
whole enterprise was aimed at disabusing us of the illusions of humanist 
reformers throughout history. The “specific intellectual” in fact turns out 
to be just one more expert, one more liberal attacking specifics rather 
than the roots of problems. And looking at the content of his activism, 
which was mainly in the area of penal reform, the orientation is almost 
too tepid to even qualify as liberal. In the ‘80s “he tried to gather, under 
the aegis of his chair at the College de France, historians, lawyers, judges, 
psychiatrists and doctors concerned with law and punishment,” according 
to Keith Gandal. All the cops. “The work I did on the historical relativity 
of the prison form,” said Foucault, “was an incitation to try to think of 



other forms of punishment.” Obviously, he accepted the legitimacy of 
this society and of punishment; no less unsurprising was his corollary 
dismissal of anarchists as infantile in their hopes for the future and faith 
in human potential. 

The works of Jean-Frangois Lyotard are significantly contradictory 
to each other — in itself a pm trait — but also express a central postmodern 
theme: that society cannot and should not be understood as a whole. 
Lyotard is a prime example of anti-totalizing thought to the point that 
he has summed up postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives” 
or overviews. The idea that it is unhealthy as well as impossible to grasp 
the whole is part of an enormous reaction in France since the ‘60s against 
Marxist and Communist influences. While Lyotard’s chief target is the 
Marxist tradition, once so very strong in French political and intellectual 
life, he goes further and rejects social theory in toto. For example, he has 
come to believe that any concept of alienation — the idea that an original 
unity, wholeness, or innocence is fractured by the fragmentation and 
indifference of capitalism — ends up as a totalitarian attempt to unify 
society coercively. Characteristically, his mid-’70s Libidinal Economy 
denounces theory as terror. 

One might say that this extreme reaction would be unlikely outside 
of a culture so dominated by the Marxist left, but another look tells us 
that it fits perfectly with the wider, disillusioned postmodern condition. 
Lyotard’s wholesale rejection of post-Kantian Enlightenment values does, 
after all, embody the realization that rational critique, at least in the 
form of the confident values and beliefs of Kantian, Hegelian and Marxist 
metanarrative theory, has been debunked by dismal historical reality. 
According to Lyotard, the pm era signifies that all consoling myths of 
intellectual mastery and truth are at an end, replaced by a plurality of 
“language-games,” the Wittgensteinian notion of “truth” as provisionally 
shared and circulating without any kind of epistemological warrant or 
philosophical foundation. Language-games are a pragmatic, localized, 
tentative basis for knowledge; unlike the comprehensive views of theory 
or historical interpretation, they depend on the agreement of participants 
for their use-value. Lyotard’s ideal is thus a multitude of “little narratives” 
instead of the “inherent dogmatism” of metanarratives or grand ideas. 
Unfortunately, such a pragmatic approach must accommodate to things 
as they are, and depends upon prevailing consensus virtually by definition. 


The Catastrophe of postmodernism 

Thus Lyotard’s approach is of limited value for creating a break from 
the everyday norms. Though his healthy, anti-authoritarian skepticism 
sees totalization as oppressive or coercive, what he overlooks is that the 
Foucaultian relativism of language-games, with their freely contracted 
agreement as to meaning, tends to hold that everything is of equal validity. 
As Gerard Raulet concluded, the resultant refusal of overview actually 
obeys the existing logic of homogeneity rather than somehow providing a 
haven for heterogeneity. 

To find progress suspect is, of course, prerequisite to any critical 
approach, but the quest for heterogeneity must include awareness of its 
disappearance and a search for the reasons why it disappeared. Postmodern 
thought generally behaves as if in complete ignorance of the news that 
division of labor and commodification are eliminating the basis for cultural 
or social heterogeneity. Pm seeks to preserve what is virtually nonexistent 
and rejects the wider thinking necessary to deal with impoverished reality. 
In this area it is of interest to look at the relationship between pm and 
technology, which happens to be of decisive importance to Lyotard. 

Adomo found the way of contemporary totalitarianism prepared by 
the Enlightenment ideal of triumph over nature, also known as instrumental 
reason. Lyotard sees the fragmentation of knowledge as essential to 
combatting domination, which disallows the overview necessary to see 
that, to the contrary, the isolation that is fragmented knowledge forgets 
the social determination and purpose of that isolation. The celebrated 
“heterogeneity” is nothing much more than the splintering effect of 
an overbearing totality he would rather ignore. Critique is never more 
discarded than in Lyotard’s postmodern positivism, resting as it does on the 
acceptance of a technical rationality that forgoes critique. Unsurprisingly, 
in the era of the decomposition of meaning and the renunciation of seeing 
what the ensemble of mere “facts” really add up to, Lyotard embraces the 
computerization of society. Rather like the Nietzschean Foucault, Lyotard 
believes that power is more and more the criterion of truth. He finds his 
companion in the postmodern pragmatist Richard Rorty who likewise 
welcomes modem technology and is deeply wedded to the hegemonic 
values of present-day industrial society. 

In 1985 Lyotard put together a spectacular high-tech exhibition 
at the Pompidou Center in Paris, featuring the artificial realities and 
microcomputer work of such artists as Myron Krueger. At the opening, its 



planner declared, “We wanted... to indicate that the world is not evolving 
toward greater clarity and simplicity, but rather toward a new degree of 
complexity in which the individual may feel very lost but in which he can in 
fact become more free.” Apparently overviews are permitted if they coincide 
with the plans of our masters for us and for nature. But the more specific 
point lies with “immateriality,” the title of the exhibit and a Lyotardian 
term which he associates with the erosion of identity, the breaking down of 
stable barriers between the self and a world produced by our involvement in 
labyrinthine technological and social systems. Needless to say, he approves 
of this condition, celebrating, for instance, the “pluralizing” potential of new 
communications technology — of the sort that de-sensualizes life, flattens 
experience and eradicates the natural world. Lyotard writes: “All peoples 
have a right to science,” as if he has the very slightest understanding of 
what science means. He prescribes “public free access to the memory and 
data banks.” A horrific view of liberation, somewhat captured by: “Data 
banks are the encyclopedia of tomorrow; they are “nature” for postmodern 
men and women.” 

Its usually very opaque jargon aside, pm partakes of fast-food 
consumerism. It is also, maybe even more fundamentally, the embrace of 
technology. The expression, as Lorenzo Simpson puts it so well in his Technology, 
Time, and the Conversations of Modernity, of a world “being thoroughly 
dominated and domesticated by technology.” In sum, “the realization of the 
universalization of the technological attitude, its completion.” 

Frank Lentricchia termed Derrida’s deconstructionist project “an 
elegant, commanding overview matched in philosophic history only by 
Hegel.” It is an obvious irony that the postmodernists require a general 
theory to support their assertion as to why there cannot and should not be 
general theories or metanarratives. Sartre, gestalt theorists and common 
sense tell us that what pm dismisses as “totalizing reason” is in fact inherent 
in perception itself: one sees a whole, as a rule, not discrete fragments. 
Another irony is provided by Charles Altieri’s observation of Lyotard, “that 
this thinker so acutely aware of the dangers inherent in master narratives 
nonetheless remains completely committed to the authority of generalized 
abstraction.” Pm announces an anti-generalist bias, but its practitioners, 
Lyotard perhaps especially, retain a very high level of abstraction in 
discussing culture, modernity and other such topics which are of course 
already vast generalizations. 



“A liberated humanity,” wrote Adomo, “would by no means be a 
totality.” Nonetheless, we are currently stuck with a social world that is one 
and which totalizes with a vengeance. Postmodernism, with its celebrated 
fragmentation and heterogeneity, may choose to forget about the totality, 
but the totality will not forget about us. 


Gilles Deleuze’s “schizo-politics” flow, at least in part, from the 
prevailing pm refusal of overview, of a point of departure. Also called 
“nomadology,” employing “rhizomatic writing,” Deleuze’s method champions 
the deterritorialization and decoding of structures of domination, by 
which capitalism will supersede itself through its own dynamic. With his 
sometime partner Felix Guattari, with whom he shares a specialization 
in psychoanalysis, he hopes to see the system’s schizophrenic tendency 
intensified to the point of shattering. Deleuze seems to share, or at least 
comes very close to, the absurdist conviction of Yoshimoto Takai that 
consumption constitutes a new form of resistance. 

This brand of denying the totality by the radical strategy of urging 
it to dispose of itself also recalls the impotent pm style of opposing 
representation: meanings do not penetrate to a center, they do not represent 
something beyond their reach. “Thinking without representing,” is Charles 
Scott’s description of Deleuze’s approach. Schizo-politics celebrates surfaces 
and discontinuities; nomadology is the opposite of history. 

Deleuze also embodies the postmodern “death of the subject” theme, 
in his and Guattari’s best-known work, Anti-Oedipus, and subsequently. 
“Desiringmachines,” formed by the coupling of parts, human and nonhuman, 
with no distinction between them, seek to replace humans as the focus of his 
social theory. In opposition to the illusion of an individual subject in society, 
Deleuze portrays a subject no longer even recognizably anthropocentric. 
One cannot escape the feeling, despite his supposedly radical intention, of 
an embrace of alienation, even a wallowing in estrangement and decadence. 

In the early 70s Jean Baudrillard exposed the bourgeois foundations 



of marxism, mainly its veneration of production and work, in his Mirror of 
Production (1972). This contribution hastened the decline of marxism and 
the Communist Party in France, already in disarray after the reactionary 
role played by the Left against the upheavals of May ‘68. Since that time, 
however, Baudrillard has come to represent the darkest tendencies of 
postmodernism and has emerged, especially in America, as a pop star to the 
ultra-jaded, famous for his fully disenchanted views of the contemporary 
world. In addition to the unfortunate resonance between the almost 
hallucinatory morbidity of Baudrillard and a culture in decomposition, it is 
also true that he (along with Lyotard) has been magnified by the space he 
was expected to fill following the passing, in the ‘80s, of relatively deeper 
thinkers like Barthes and Foucault. 

Derrida’s deconstructive description of the impossibility of a referent 
outside of representation becomes, for Baudrillard, a negative metaphysics 
in which reality is transformed by capitalism into simulations that have no 
backing. The culture of capital is seen as having gone beyond its fissures 
and contradictions to a place of self-sufficiency that reads like a rather 
science-fiction rendering of Adorno’s totally administered society. And 
there can be no resistance, no “going back," in part because the alternative 
would be that nostalgia for the natural, for origins, so adamantly ruled out 
by postmodernism. 

“The real is that of which it is possible to give an equivalent 
reproduction.” Nature has been so far left behind that culture determines 
materiality; more specifically, media simulation shapes reality. “The 
simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth which 
conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” Debord’s “society of 
the spectacle” — but at a stage of implosion of self, agency, and history into 
the void of simulations such that the spectacle is in service to itself alone. 

It is obvious that in our “Information Age,” the electronic media 
technologies have become increasingly dominant, but the overreach of 
Baudrillard’s dark vision is equally obvious. To stress the power of images 
should not obscure underlying material determinants and objectives, namely 
profit and expansion. The assertion that the power of the media now means 
that the real no longer exists is related to his claim that power “can no 
longer be found anywhere”; and both claims are false. Intoxicating rhetoric 
cannot erase the fact that the essential information of the Information Age 
deals with the hard realities of efficiency, accounting, productivity and the 


The Catastrophe of postmodernism 

like. Production has not been supplanted by simulation, unless one can say 
that the planet is being ravaged by mere images, which is not to say that a 
progressive acceptance of the artificial does not greatly assist the erosion of 
what is left of the natural. 

Baudrillard contends that the difference between reality and 
representation has collapsed, leaving us in a “hyperreality” that is always 
and only a simulacrum. Curiously, he seems not only to acknowledge the 
inevitability of this development, but to celebrate it. The cultural, in its 
widest sense, has reached a qualitatively new stage in which the very realm 
of meaning and signification has disappeared. We live in “the age of events 
without consequences” in which the “real” only survives as formal category, 
and this, he imagines, is welcomed. “Why should we think that people want 
to disavow their daily lives in order to search for an alternative? On the 
contrary, they want to make a destiny of ratify monotony by a grander 
monotony.” If there should be any “resistance,” his prescription for that 
is similar to that of Deleuze, who would prompt society to become more 
schizophrenic. That is, it consists wholly in what is granted by the system: 
“You want us to consume — O.K., let’s consume always more, and anything 
whatsoever; for any useless and absurd purpose.” This is the radical strategy 
he names “hyperconformity.” 

At many points, one can only guess as to which phenomena, if any, 
Baudrillard’s hyperbole refers. The movement of consumer society toward 
both uniformity and dispersal is perhaps glimpsed in one passage ...but 
why bother when the assertions seem all too often cosmically inflated and 
ludicrous. This most extreme of the postmodern theorists, now himself a 
top-selling cultural object, has referred to the “ominous emptiness of all 
discourse,” apparently unaware of the phrase as an apt reference to his 
own vacuities. 

Japan may not qualify as “hyperreality,” but it is worth mentioning 
that its culture seems to be even more estranged and postmodern than that 
of the U.S. In the judgment of Masao Miyoshi, “the dispersal and demise of 
modem subjectivity, as talked about by Barthes, Foucault, and many others, 
have long been evident in Japan, where intellectuals have chronically 
complained about the absence of selfhood.” A flood of largely specialized 
information, provided by experts of all kinds, highlights the Japanese high- 
tech consumer ethos, in which the indeterminacy of meaning and a high 
valuation of perpetual novelty work hand in hand. Yoshimoto Takai is 



perhaps the most prolific national cultural critic; somehow it does not seem 
bizarre to many that he is also a male fashion model, who extols the virtues 
and values of shopping. 

Yasuo Tanaka’s hugely popular Somehow, Crystal (1980) was arguably 
the Japanese cultural phenomenon of the ‘80s, in that this vacuous, 
unabashedly consumerist novel, awash with brand names (a bit like 
Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 American Psycho), dominated the decade. But it is 
cynicism, even more than superficiality, that seems to mark that full dawning 
of postmodernism which Japan seems to be: how else does one explain that 
the most incisive analyses of pm there — Now is the Meta-Mass Age, for 
example — are published by the Parco Corporation, the country’s trendiest 
marketing and retailing outlet. Shigesatu Itoi is a top media star, with his 
own television program, numerous publications, and constant appearances 
in magazines. The basis of this idol’s fame? Simply that he wrote a series 
of state-of-the-art (flashy, fragmented, etc.) ads for Seibu, Japan’s largest 
and most innovative department store chain. Where capitalism exists in 
its most advanced, postmodern form, knowledge is consumed in exactly 
the way that one buys clothes. “Meaning” is passe, irrelevant; style and 
appearance are all. 

We are fast arriving at a sad and empty place, which the spirit of 
postmodernism embodies all too well. “Never in any previous civilization 
have the great metaphysical preoccupations, the fundamental questions of 
being and the meaning of life, seemed so utterly remote and pointless,” 
in Frederic Jameson’s judgment. Peter Sloterdijk finds that “the discontent 
in culture has assumed a new quality: it appears as universal, diffuse 
cynicism.” The erosion of meaning, pushed forward by intensified reification 
and fragmentation, causes the cynic to appear everywhere. Psychologically 
“a borderline melancholic,” he is now “a mass figure.” 

The postmodern capitulation to perspectivism and decadence does not 
tend to view the present as alienated — surely an old-fashioned concept — 
but rather as normal and even pleasant. Robert Rauschenberg: “I really feel 
sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles 
are ugly, because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and 
it must make them miserable.” It isn’t just that “everything is culture,” the 
culture of the commodity, that is offensive; it is also the pm affirmation of 
what is by its refusal to make qualitative distinctions and judgments. If 
the postmodern at least does us the favor, unwittingly, of registering the 


The Catastrophe of postmodernism 

decomposition and even depravity of a cultural world that accompanies 
and abets the current frightening impoverishment of life, that may be its 
only “contribution.” 

We are all aware of the possibility that we may have to endure, 
until its self-destruction and ours, a world fatally out of focus. “Obviously, 
culture does not dissolve merely because persons are alienated,” wrote John 
Murphy, adding, “A strange type of society has to be invented, nonetheless, 
in order for alienation to be considered normative.” 

Meanwhile, where are vitality, refusal, the possibility of creating 
a non-mutilated world? Barthes proclaimed a Nietzschean “hedonism of 
discourse”; Lyotard counselled, “Let us be pagans.” Such wild barbarians! 
Of course, their real stuff is blank and dispirited, a thoroughly relativized 
academic sterility. Postmodernism leaves us hopeless in an unending mall; 
without a living critique; nowhere. 





Nice-ism n. tendency, more or less socially codified, to approach reality 
in terms of whether others behave cordially ; tyranny of decorum which 
disallows thinking or acting for oneself; mode of interaction based upon the 
above absence of critical judgement or autonomy. 

All of us prefer what is friendly, sincere, pleasant — nice. But in an 
immiserated world of pervasive and real crisis, which should be causing all 
of us to radically reassess everything, the nice can be the false. 

The face of domination is often a smiling one, a cultured one. 
Auschwitz comes to mind, with its managers who enjoyed their Goethe and 
Mozart. Similarly, it was not evil-looking monsters who built the A-bomb 
but nice liberal intellectuals. Ditto regarding those who are computerizing 
life and those who in other ways are the mainstays of participation in 
this rotting order, just as it is the nice businessperson (self-managed or 
otherwise) who is the backbone of a cruel work-and-shop existence by 
concealing its real horrors. 

Cases of niceism include the peaceniks, whose ethic of niceness puts 
them — again and again and again-in stupid ritualized, no-win situations, 
those Earth Firstlers who refuse to confront the thoroughly reprehensible 
ideology at the top of “their” organization, and Fifth Estate, whose highly 
important contributions now seem to be in danger of an eclipse by 
liberalism. All the single-issue causes, from ecologism to feminism, and all 

the militancy in their service, are only ways of evading the necessity of a 
qualitative break with more than just the excesses of the system. 

The nice as the perfect enemy of tactical or analytical thinking: 
Be agreeable; don’t let having radical ideas make waves in your personal 
behavior. Accept the pre-packaged methods and limits of the daily 
strangulation. Ingrained deference, the conditioned response to “play by the 
rules” — authority’s rules — this is the real Fifth Column, the one within us. 

In the context of a mauled social life that demands the drastic as 
a minimum response toward health, niceism becomes more and more 
infantile, conformist and dangerous. It cannot grant joy, only more routine 
and isolation. The pleasure of authenticity exists only against the grain of 
society. Niceism keeps us all in our places, confusedly reproducing all that 
we supposedly abhor. Let’s stop being nice to this nightmare and all who 
would keep us in it. 


Tech-nol-o-gy n. According to Webster’s: industrial or applied science. In 
reality: the ensemble of division of labor/production/industrialism and its 
impact on us and on nature. Technology is the sum of mediations between 
us and the natural world and the sum of those separations mediating us 
from each other. It is all the drudgery and toxicity required to produce and 
reproduce the stage of hyper-alienation we live in. It is the texture and the 
form of domination at any given stage of hierarchy and commodification. 

Those who still say that technology is “neutral,” “merely a tool,” have 
not yet begun to consider what is involved. Junger, Adorno and Horkheimer, 
Ellul and a few others over the past decades — not to mention the crushing, 
all but unavoidable truth of technology in its global and personal toll — have 
led to a deeper approach to the topic. Thirty-five years ago the esteemed 
philosopher Jaspers wrote that “Technology is only a means, in itself 
neither good nor evil. Everything depends upon what man makes of it, for 
what purpose it serves him, under what conditions he places it.” The archaic 
sexism aside, such superficial faith in specialization and technical progress 
is increasingly seen as ludicrous. Infinitely more on target was Marcuse 



when he suggested in 1964 that “the very concept of technical reason is 
perhaps ideological. Not only the application of technology, but technology 
itself is domination... methodical, ascientific, calculated, calculating control.” 
Today we experience that control as a steady reduction of our contact with 
the living world, a speeded-up Information Age emptiness drained by 
computerization and poisoned by the dead, domesticating imperialism of 
high-tech method. Never before have people been so infantilized, made so 
dependent on the machine for everything; as the Earth rapidly approaches 
its extinction due to technology, our souls are shrunk and flattened by its 
pervasive rule. Any sense of wholeness and freedom can only return by 
the undoing of the massive division of labor at the heart of technological 
progress. This is the liberatory project in all its depth. 

Of course, the popular literature does not yet reflect a critical 
awareness of what technology is. Some works completely embrace the 
direction we are being taken, such as McCorduck’s Machines Who Think and 
Simons” Are Computers Alive?, to mention a couple of the more horrendous. 
Other, even more recent books seem to offer a judgment that finally flies 
in the face of mass pro-tech propaganda, but fail dismally as they reach 
their conclusions. Murphy, Mickunas and Pilotta edited The Underside of 
High-Tech: Technology and the Deformation of Human Sensibilities, whose 
ferocious title is completely undercut by an ending that technology will 
become human as soon as we change our assumptions about it! Very similar 
is Siegel and Markoff’s The High Cost of High Tech ; after chapters detailing 
the various levels of technological debilitation, we once again leant that it’s 
all just a question of attitude: “We must, as a society, understand the full 
impact of high technology if we are to shape it into a tool for enhancing 
human comfort, freedom and peace.” This kind of cowardice and/or 
dishonesty owes only in part to the fact that major publishing corporations 
do not wish to publicize fundamentally radical ideas. 

The above-remarked flight into idealism is not a new tactic of 
avoidance. Martin Heidegger, considered by some the most original and 
deep thinker of this century, saw the individual becoming only so much raw 
material for the limitless expansion of industrial technology. Incredibly, his 
solution was to find in the Nazi movement the essential “encounter between 
global technology and modem man.” Behind the rhetoric of National 
Socialism, unfortunately, was only an acceleration of technique, even into 
the sphere of genocide as a problem of industrial production. For the Nazis 



and the gullible, it was, again a question of how technology is understood 
ideally, not as it really is. In 1940, the General Inspector for the German 
Road System put it this way: “Concrete and stone are material things. Man 
gives them form and spirit. National Socialist technology possesses in all 
material achievement ideal content.” 

The bizarre case of Heidegger should be a reminder to all that good 
intentions can go wildly astray without a willingness to face technology 
and its systematic nature as part of practical social reality. Heidegger 
feared the political consequences of really looking at technology critically; 
his apolitical theorizing thus constituted a part of the most monstrous 
development of modernity, despite his intention. 

EarthFirst! claims to put nature first, to be above all petty “politics.” 
But it could well be that behind the macho swagger of a Dave Foreman (and 
the “deep ecology” theorists who also warn against radicals) is a failure of 
nerve like Heidegger’s, and the consequence, conceivably, could be similar. 


Cul-ture n. commonly rendered as the sum of the customs, ideas, arts, 
patterns, etc. of a given society. Civilization is often given as a synonym, 
reminding us that cultivation— as in domestication — is right in there, too. 
The Situationists, in 1960, had it that “culture can be defined as the ensemble 
of means through which society thinks of itself and shows itself to itself." 
Getting warmer, Barthes remarked that it is “a machine for showing you 
desire. To desire, always to desire but never to understand." 

Culture was more respected once, seemingly, something to “live up 
to.” Now, instead of concern for how we fail culture, the emphasis is on 
how culture has failed us. Definitely something at work that thwarts us, 
does not satisfy and this makes itself more evident as we face globally and 
within us the death of nature. Culture, as the opposite of nature, grows 
discordant, sours, fades as we strangle in the thinner and thinner air of 
symbolic activity. High culture or low, palace or hovel, it’s the same prison- 
house of consciousness; the symbolic as the repressive. 

It is inseparable from the birth and continuation of alienation 



surviving, as ever, as compensation, a trade of the real for its objectification. 
Culture embodies the split between wholeness and the parts of the whole 
turning into domination. Time, language, number, art — cultural impositions 
that have come to dominate us with lives of their own. 

Magazines and journals now teem with articles lamenting the spread 
of cultural illiteracy and historical amnesia, two conditions that underline a 
basic dis-ease in society. In our postmodern epoch the faces of fashion range 
from blank to sullen, as hard drug use, suicide, and emotional disability 
rates continue to soar. About a year ago I got a ride from Berkeley to Oregon 
with a U.C. senior and somewhere along the drive I asked her, after talking 
about the ‘60s, among other things, to describe her own generation. She 
spoke of her co-students in terms of loveless sex, increasing heroin use, and 
“a sense of despair masked by consumerism.” 

Meanwhile, massive denial continues. In a recent collection of essays 
on culture, D.J. Enright offers the sage counsel that “the more commonly 
personal misery and discontent are aired, the more firmly these ills tighten 
their grip on us.” Since anxiety first sought deliverance via cultural form 
and expression, in the symbolic approach to authenticity, our condition has 
probably not been this transparently bankrupt. Robert Harbison's Deliberate 
Regression is another work displaying complete ignorance regarding the 
fundamental emptiness of culture: “the story of how enthusiasm for the 
primitive and the belief that salvation lies in unlearning came to be a force 
in almost every held of thought is exceedingly strange.” 

Certainly the ruins are there for everyone to see. From exhausted 
art in the form of the recycled mish-mash of postmodernism, to the 
poststructuralist technocrats like Lyotard, who finds in data banks “the 
Encyclopedia of tomorrow., .’nature” for postmodern man,” including such 
utterly impotent forms of “opposition” as “micropolitics” and “schizopolitics,” 
there is little but the obvious symptoms of a general fragmentation 
and despair. Peter Sloterdijk (Critique of Cynical Reason) points out that 
cynicism is the cardinal, pervasive outlook, for now the best that negation 
has to offer. 

But the myth of culture will manage to survive as long as our 
immiseration fails to force us to confront it, and so cynicism will remain as 
long as we allow culture to remain in lieu of unmediated life. 


The nihilist’s dictionary 


Fer-al adj. wild, or existing in a state of nature, as freely occurring animals 
or plants; having reverted to the wild state from domestication. 

We exist in a landscape of absence wherein real life is steadily 
being drained out by debased work, the hollow cycle of consumerism 
and the mediated emptiness of high-tech dependency. Today it is not 
only the stereotypical yuppie workaholic who tries to cheat despair via 
activity, preferring not to contemplate a fate no less sterile than that of 
the planet and (domesticated) subjectivity in general. We are confronted, 
nonetheless, by the ruins of nature and the ruin of our own nature, the 
sheer enormity of the meaninglessness and the inauthentic amounting to 
a weight of lies. It’s still drudgery and toxicity for the vast majority, while 
a poverty more absolute than financial renders more vacant the universal 
Dead Zone of civilization. “Empowered” by computerization? Infantilized, 
more like. An Information Age characterized by increased communication? 
No, that would presuppose experience worth communicating. A time of 
unprecedented respect for the individual? Translation: wage-slavery needs 
the strategy of worker self-management at the point of production to stave 
off the continuing productivity crisis, and market research must target each 
“lifestyle” in the interest of a maximized consumer culture. 

In the upside-down society the solution to massive alienation-induced 
drug use is a media barrage, with results as embarrassing as the hundreds 
of millions futilely spent against declining voter turnout. Meanwhile, TV, 
voice and soul of the modem world, dreams vainly of arresting the growth 
of illiteracy and what is left of emotional health by means of propaganda 
spots of 30 seconds or less. In the industrialized culture of irreversible 
depression, isolation, and cynicism, the spirit will die first, the death of the 
planet an afterthought. That is, unless we erase this rotting order, all of its 
categories and dynamics. 

Meanwhile, the parade of partial (and for that reason false) 
oppositions proceeds on its usual routes. There are the Greens and their 
like who try to extend the life of the racket of electoralism, based on the lie 
that there is validity in any person representing another; these types would 
perpetuate just one more home for protest, in lieu of the real thing. The 
peace “movement” exhibits, in its every (uniformly pathetic) gesture, that 


Future Primitive Revisited 

it is the best friend of authority, property and passivity. One illustration 
will suffice: in May 1989, on the 20th anniversary of Berkeley’s People’s 
Park battle, a thousand people rose up admirably, looting 28 businesses 
and injuring 15 cops; declared peace-creep spokesperson Julia Talley, “These 
riots have no place in the peace movement.” Which brings to mind the 
fatally misguided students in Tiananmen Square, after the June 3 massacre 
had begun, trying to prevent workers from fighting the government troops. 
And the general truth that the university is the number one source of that 
slow strangulation known as reform, the refusal of a qualitative break with 
degradation. Earth First! recognizes that domestication is the fundamental 
issue (e.g. that agriculture itself is malignant) but many of its partisans 
cannot see that our species could become wild. 

Radical environmentalists appreciate that the turning of national 
forests into tree farms is merely a part of the overall project that also seeks 
their own suppression. But they will have to seek the wild everywhere 
rather than merely in wilderness as a separate preserve. 

Freud saw that there is no civilization without the forcible 
renunciation of instincts, without monumental coercion. But, because 
the masses are basically “lazy and unintelligent,” civilization is justified, 
he reasoned. This model or prescription was based on the idea that pre- 
civilized life was brutal and deprived — a notion that has been, amazingly, 
reversed in the past 20 years. Prior to agriculture, in other words, humanity 
existed in a state of grace, ease and communion with nature that we can 
barely comprehend today. 

The vista of authenticity emerges as no less than a wholesale 
dissolution of civilization’s edifice of repression, which Freud, by the way, 
described as “something which was imposed on a resisting majority by 
a minority which understood how to obtain possession of the means to 
power and coercion.” We can either passively continue on the road to utter 
domestication and destruction or turn in the direction of joyful upheaval, 
passionate and feral embrace of wildness and life that aims at dancing 
on the ruins of clocks, computers and that failure of imagination and will 
called work. Can we justify our lives by anything less than such a politics 
of rage and dreams? 




Di-vi-sion of la-bor n. 1. the breakdown into specific, circumscribed tasks 
for maximum efficiency of output which constitutes manufacture ; cardinal 
aspect of production. 2. the fragmenting or reduction of human activity into 
separated toil that is the practical root of alienation; that basic specialization 
which makes civilization appear and develop. 

The relative wholeness of pre-civilized life was first and foremost an 
absence of the narrowing, confining separation of people into differentiated 
roles and functions. The foundation of our shrinkage of experience and 
powerlessness in the face of the reign of expertise, felt so acutely today, 
is the division of labor. It is hardly accidental that key ideologues of 
civilization have striven mightily to valorize it. In Plato’s Republic, for 
example, we are instructed that the origin of the state lies in that “natural" 
inequality of humanity that is embodied in the division of labor. Durkheim 
celebrated a fractionated, unequal world by divining that the touchstone 
of “human solidarity,” its essential moral value is — you guessed it. Before 
him, according to Franz Borkenau, it was a great increase in division of 
labor occurring around 1600 that introduced the abstract category of work, 
which may be said to underlie, in turn, the whole modem, Cartesian notion 
that our bodily existence is merely an object of our (abstract) consciousness. 

In the first sentence of The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith 
foresaw the essence of industrialism by determining that division of labor 
represents a qualitative increase in productivity. 20 years later Schiller 
recognized that division of labor was producing a society in which its 
members were unable to develop their humanity. Marx could see both sides: 
“as a result of division of labor,” the worker is “reduced to the condition of 
a machine.” But decisive was Marx’s worship of the fullness of production 
as essential to human liberation. The immiseration of humanity along the 
road of capital’s development he saw as a necessary evil. 

Marxism cannot escape the determining imprint of this decision 
in favor of division of labor, and its major voices certainly reflect this 
acceptance. Lukacs, for instance, chose to ignore it, seeing only the “reifying 
effects of the dominant commodity form” in his attention to the problem 
of proletarian consciousness. E.P. Thompson realized that with the factory 
system, “the character-structure of the rebellious pre- industrial labourer or 



artisan was violently recast into that of the submissive individual worker.” 
But he devoted amazingly little attention to division of labor, the central 
mechanism by which this transformation was achieved. Marcuse tried to 
conceptualize a civilization without repression, while amply demonstrating 
the incompatibility of the two. In bowing to the “naturalness” inherent in 
division of labor, he judged that the “rational exercise of authority” and the 
“advancement of the whole” depend upon it — while a few pages later (in 
Eros and Civilization ) granting that one’s “labor becomes the more alien the 
more specialized the division of labor becomes.” 

Ellul understood how “the sharp knife of specialization has passed 
like a razor into the living flesh,” how division of labor causes the ignorance 
of a “closed universe” cutting off the subject from others and from nature. 
Similarly did Horkheimer sum up the debilitation: “thus, for all their activity 
individuals are becoming more passive; for all their power over nature 
they are becoming more powerless in relation to society and themselves.” 
Along these lines, Foucault emphasized productivity as the fundamental 
contemporary repression. 

But recent Marxian thought continues in the trap of having, 
ultimately, to elevate division of labor for the sake of technological progress. 
Braverman’s in many ways excellent Labor and Monopoly Capital explores 
the degradation of work, but sees it as mainly a problem of loss of “will 
and ambition to wrest control of production from capitalist hands.” And 
Schwabbe’s Psychosocial Consequences of Natural and Alienated Labor 
is dedicated to the ending of all domination in production and projects 
a self-management of production. The reason, obviously, that he ignores 
division of labor is that it is inherent in production; he does not see that it 
is nonsense to speak of liberation and production in the same breath. 

The tendency of division of labor has always been the forced labor 
of the interchangeable cog in an increasingly autonomous, impervious-to- 
desire apparatus. The barbarism of modem times is still the enslavement to 
technology, that is to say, to division of labor. “Specialization,” wrote Giedion, 
“goes on without respite,” and today more than ever can we see and feel the 
barren, de-eroticized world it has brought us to. Robinson Jeffers decided, “I 
don’t think industrial civilization is worth the distortion of human nature, 
and the meanness and loss of contact with the earth, that it entails.” 

Meanwhile, the continuing myths of the “neutrality” and “inevitability” 
of technological development are crucial to fitting everyone to the yoke 



of division of labor. Those who oppose domination while defending its 
core principle are the perpetuators of our captivity. Consider Guattari, 
that radical post-structuralist, who finds that desire and dreams are quite 
possible “even in a society with highly developed industry and highly 
developed public information services, etc.” Our advanced French opponent 
of alienation scoffs at the naive who detect the “essential wickedness of 
industrial societies,” but does offer the prescription that “the whole attitude 
of specialists needs questioning.” Not the existence of specialists, of course, 
merely their “attitudes.” 

To the question, “How much division of labor should we jettison?” 
returns, I believe, the answer, “How much wholeness for ourselves and the 
planet do we want?” 


Prog-ressn. lfarchaic] official journey, as of a ruler. 2. historical development, 
in the sense of advance or improvement. 3. forward course of history or 
civilization, as in horror show or death-trip. 

Perhaps no single idea in Western civilization has been as important 
as the notion of progress. It is also true that, as Robert Nisbet has put it, 
“Everything now suggests that Western faith in the dogma of progress is 
waning rapidly in all levels and spheres in this final part of the twentieth 

In the anti-authoritarian milieu, too, progress has fallen on hard 
times. There was a time when the syndicalist blockheads, like their close 
Marxist relatives, could more or less successfully harangue as marginal 
and insignificant those disinterested in organizing their alienation via 
unions, councils and the like. Instead of the old respect for productivity and 
production (the pillars of progress), a Luddite prescription for the factories 
is ascendant and anti-work a cardinal starting point of radical dialogue. We 
even see certain aging leopards trying to change their spots: the Industrial 
Workers of the World, embarrassed by the first word of their name may yet 
move toward refusing the second (though certainly not as an organization). 

The eco-crisis is clearly one factor in the discrediting of progress, but 



how it remained an article of faith for so many for so long is a vexing 
question. For what has progress meant, after all? Its promise began to realize 
itself, in many ways, from history’s very beginning. With the emergence 
of agriculture and civilization commenced, for instance, the progressive 
destruction of nature; large regions of the Near East, Africa and Greece were 
rather quickly rendered desert wastelands. 

In terms of violence, the transformation from a mainly pacific and 
egalitarian gatherer-hunter mode to the violence of agriculture/civilization 
was rapid. “Revenge, feuds, warfare, and battle seem to emerge among, and to 
be typical of, domesticated peoples,” according to Peter Wilson. And violence 
certainly has made progress along the way, needless to say, from state weapons 
of mega-death to the recent rise in outburst murders and serial killers. 

Disease itself is very nearly an invention of civilized life; every known 
degenerative illness is part of the toll of historical betterment. From the 
wholeness and sensual vitality of prehistory, to the present vista of endemic 
ill-health and mass psychic misery — more progress. 

The pinnacle of progress is today’s Information Age, which embodies 
a progression in division of labor, from an earlier time of the greater 
possibility of unmediated understanding, to the stage where knowledge 
becomes merely an instrument of the repressive totality, to the current 
cybernetic era where data is all that’s really left. Progress has put meaning 
itself to flight. 

Science, the model of progress, has imprisoned and interrogated 
nature, while technology has sentenced it (and humanity) to forced labor. 
From the original dividing of the self that is civilization, to Descartes” 
splitting of the mind from the rest of objects (including the body), to our arid, 
high-tech present — a movement indeed wondrous. Two centuries ago the 
first inventors of industrial machinery were spat on by the English textile 
workers subjected to it and thought villainous by just about everyone but 
their capitalist paymasters. The designers of today’s computerized slavery 
are lionized as cultural heroes, though opposition is beginning to mount. 

In the absence of greater resistance, the inner logic of class society’s 
development will culminate in a totally technicized life as its final stage. The 
equivalence of the progress of society and that of technology is becoming 
ever more apparent by the fact of their immanent convergence. Theses on 
the Philosophy of History, Walter Benjamin’s last and best work, contains 
this lyrically expressed insight: 


the Nihilist’s dictionary 

“A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as 
though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. 
His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one 
pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we 
perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling 
wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would 
like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But 
a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such 
violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly 
propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of 
debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” 


Though somewhat slowed in the past decade, the pursuit of Artificial 
Intelligence proceeds apace toward the highest moment of science and 
technology so far. The achievement of Al would mark a qualitative change 
in the actions, culture and self-perception of the human race, and what 
underlines this is how far this departure has already taken place. 

Marvin Minsky described the brain as a three-pound computer made 
of meat, an outlook echoed since by AI theorists, such as the Churchills. 
The computer is constantly serving as a metaphor for the human mind or 
brain, so much so that we tend to see ourselves as thinking machines. Note 
how many mechanical terms have crept into the common vocabulary of 
human cognition. 

It is the whole train of mass production, with its linearism and 
homogenization, that carries forward toward the currency of machine 
models, toward the non- individual and non-sensual and away from the 
sense of the natural and the whole. With the movement of Al (and robotics) 
the human becomes inessential. Humanness becomes inessential. 

The computational metaphor that sees mind as an information- 
processing or symbol-manipulating machine has produced a psychology 
which looks to machines for central concepts. Cognitive psychology ground 
itself in the mathematical orientation of information theory and computer 



science. Indeed, the field of AI is now co-extensive with that of cognitive 
psychology and philosophy of mind. Computer modeling reigns from 
academic disciplines even to popular usage. 

In 1981 Aaron Sloman and Monica Croucher wrote “Why Robots 
Will Have Emotions,” which calls to mind Psychology Today for December 
1983, dedicated to the “Affectionate Machine,” a limitless tribute to the 
promise of AI. In the January 1990 Scientific American, John Searle asks, 
“Is the Brain’s Mind a Computer Program?” while Patricia Smith Churchill 
and Paul Churchill pose the standard “Could a Machine Think?” The 
tentative answers are, I believe, less important than the presence of such 

Decades ago, Adorno could already see the contemporary diminishing 
and deforming of the individual at the hands of high tech, and its impact 
on critical thought. “The computer — which thinking wants to make its 
own equal and to whose greater glory it would like nothing better than to 
eliminate itself — is the bankruptcy petition of consciousness.” Even earlier 
(1950), Alan Turing predicted that by the year 2000 “the use of words and 
general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able 
to speak of machines thinking” without fear of contradiction. His forecast 
clearly dealt not with the state of machines but with a prevailing future 
ethos. Growing alienation brings a sea change regarding the whole subject, 
which ultimately includes a redefinition of what it means to be human. 
Finally, perhaps, even “emotions” of computers will be recognized and will 
be confused with what is left of human sensibilities. 

Meanwhile, the computer simulations of physicist Steven Wolfram 
supposedly replicate freely-occurring physical processes, leading to the 
dubious conclusion that nature itself is one vast computer. On a more 
tangible, if even eerier plane, is the effort to create synthetic life via 
computer simulation, the progress of which was the big news from the 
second Artificial Life Conference at Santa Fe in February 1990. What it 
means to be alive is also undergoing a cultural redefinition. 

Relatedly, another wonderful development is the Human Genome 
Project of the National Institutes of Health, a $3 billion government 
attempt to decipher the three-billion-digit genetic sequence that encodes 
human growth. The massive Genome Project is yet another example of the 
dehumanizing paradigms engulfing us: one Nobel laureate has asserted 
that knowing that whole sequence would tell us what human beings really 



are. Add to this awful reductionism the potential vistas the project opens 
up for genetic engineering. 

Computerized neuroscience, joined by AI, is pointed toward an 
interface of the artificial and the human on a deep neurological level. The 
trend, if unchecked, proposes nothing less than the cyborganization of the 
species, including the possibility of permanent genetic changes in us. 

In the February 5, 1990 Forbes, David Churchbuck wrote of “The 
Ultimate Computer Game: Why Settle for the Real Thing if You Can Live in 
a Dream that Is Safer, Cheaper and Easier to Manipulate? Computers Will 
Soon Make Such a World Possible.” His lengthy subtitle refers to the advent 
of “cyberspace” games that simulate total environments, a quantum leap 
from video games! Quite a testimony to increasing passivity and isolation in 
an increasingly artificial and empty world. Those who still see technology as 
“neutral,” a mere “tool” existing apart from the dominant values and social 
system are criminally blind to the will to nullify of a death-trip culture. 


Com-mu-ni-ty n. 1 a body of people having the same interests. 2. [Ecol] 
an aggregate of organisms with mutual relations. 3. a concept invoiced to 
establish solidarity, often when the basis for such affiliation is absent or 
when the actual content of that affiliation contradicts the stated political 
goal of solidarity. 

Community, by which one obviously means more than, say, neighbor- 
hood, is a very elusive term but a continuing touchstone of radical value. 
In fact, all manner of folks resort to it, from the pacifist encampments near 
nuclear test sites to “serve the people” leftists with their sacrifice-plus- 
manipulation approach to the proto-fascist Afrikaaner settlers. It is invoked 
for a variety of purposes or goals, but as a liberatory notion is a fiction. 

Everyone feels the absence of community, because human fellowship 
must struggle, to even remotely exist, against what “community” is in 
reality. The nuclear family, religion, nationality, work, school, property, 
the specialism of roles — some combination of these seems to comprise 
every surviving community since the imposition of civilization. So we are 



dealing with an illusion, and to argue that some qualitatively higher form 
of community is allowed to exist within civilization is to affirm civilization. 
Positivity furthers the lie that the authentically social can coexist with 
domestication. In this regard, what really accompanies domination, as 
community, is at best middle-class, respect-the-system protest. 

Fifth Estate, for example, undercuts its (partial) critique of civilization 
by upholding community and ties to it in its every other sentence. At times 
it seems that the occasional Hollywood film (e.g. Emerald Forest, Dances 
With Wolves) outdoes our anti-authoritarian journals in showing that a 
liberatory solidarity springs from non-civilization and its combat with the 
“community” of industrial modernity. 

Jacques Camatte discussed capital’s movement from the stage 
of formal domination to that of real domination. But there appear to be 
significant grounds from which to project the continuing erosion of support 
for existing community and a desire for genuine solidarity and freedom. 
As Fredy Perlman put it, near the end of his exceptional Against His-Story, 
Against Leviathan!: “What is known is that Leviathan, the great artifice, 
single and world-embracing for the first time, in His-story, is decomposing... 
It is a good time for people to let go of its sanity, its masks and armors, and 
go mad, for they are already being ejected from its pretty polis.” 

The refusal of community might be termed a self-defeating isolation 
but it appears preferable, healthier, than declaring our allegiance to the 
daily fabric of an increasingly self-destructive world. Magnified alienation 
is not a condition chosen by those who insist on the truly social over 
the falsely communal. It is present in any case, due to the content of 
community. Opposition to the estrangement of civilized, pacified existence 
should at least amount to naming that estrangement instead of celebrating 
it by calling it community. 

The defense of community is a conservative gesture that faces away 
from the radical break required. Why defend that to which we are held 

In truth, there is no community. And only by abandoning what is 
passed off in its name can we move on to redeem a vision of communion 
and vibrant connectedness in a world that bears no resemblance to this 
one. Only a negative “community,” based explicitly on contempt for the 
categories of existent community, is legitimate and appropriate to our aims. 




So-ci-e-ty n. from L. socius, companion. 1. an organized aggregate of 
interrelated individuals and groups. 2. totalizing racket, advancing at the 
expense of the individual, nature and human solidarity. 

Society everywhere is now driven by the treadmill of work and 
consumption. This harnessed movement, so very far from a state of 
companionship, does not take place without agony and disaffection. Having 
more never compensates for being less, as witness rampant addiction to 
drugs, work, exercise, sex, etc. Virtually anything can be and is overused 
in the desire for satisfaction in a society whose hallmark is denial of 
satisfaction. But such excess at least gives evidence of the hunger for 
fulfillment, that is, an immense dissatisfaction with what is before us. 

Hucksters purvey every kind of dodge, for example. New Age 
panaceas, disgusting materialistic mysticism on a mass scale: sickly and 
self-absorbed, apparently incapable of looking at any part of reality with 
courage or honesty. For New Age practitioners, psychology is nothing short 
of an ideology and society is irrelevant. 

Meanwhile, Bush, surveying “generations bom numbly into despair,” 
was predictably loathsome enough to blame the victimized by citing their 
“moral emptiness.” The depth of immiseration might best be summed up 
by the federal survey of high schoolers released 9/19/91, which found that 
27 percent of them “thought seriously” about suicide in the preceding year. 

It could be that the social, with its growing testimony to alienation — 
mass depression, the refusal of literacy, the rise of panic disorders, etc. — 
may finally be registering politically. Such phenomena as continually 
declining voter turnout and deep distrust of government led the Kettering 
Foundation in June ‘91 to conclude that “the legitimacy of our political 
institutions is more at issue than our leaders imagine,” and an October 
study of three states (as reported by columnist Tom Wicker, 10/14/91) to 
discern “a dangerously broad gulf between the governors and the governed.” 

The longing for nonmutilated life and a nonmutilated world in 
which to live it collides with one chilling fact: underlying the progress of 
modem society is capital’s insatiable need for growth and expansion. The 
collapse of state capitalism in Eastern Europe and the USSR leaves only the 



“triumphant” regular variety, in command but now confronted insistently 
with far more basic contradictions than the ones it allegedly overcame in 
its pseudo-struggle with “socialism.” Of course, Soviet industrialism was 
not qualitatively different from any other variant of capitalism, and far 
more importantly, no system of production (division of labor, domination of 
nature, and work-and-pay slavery in more or less equal doses) can allow for 
either human happiness or ecological survival. 

We can now see an approaching vista of all the world as a toxic, 
ozone-less deadness. Where once most people looked to technology as a 
promise, now we know for certain that it will kill us. Computerization, with 
its congealed tedium and concealed poisons, expresses the trajectory of 
society, engineered sleekly away from sensuous existence and finding its 
current apotheosis in Virtual Reality. 

The escapism of VR is not the issue, for which of us could get by 
without escapes? Likewise, it is not so much a diversion from consciousness 
as it is itself a consciousness of complete estrangement from the natural 
world. Virtual Reality testifies to a deep pathology, reminiscent of the 
Baroque canvases of Rubens that depict armored knights mingling with 
but separated from naked women. Here the “alternative” technojunkies of 
Whole Earth Review, pioneer promoters of VR, show their true colors. A 
fetish of “tools,” and a total lack of interest in critique of society’s direction, 
lead to glorification of the artificial paradise of VR. 

The consumerist void of high-tech simulation and manipulation 
owes its dominance to two increasing tendencies in society, specialization 
of labor and the isolation of individuals. From this context emerges the 
most terrifying aspect of evil: it tends to be committed by people who are 
not particularly evil. Society, which in no way could survive a conscious 
inspection is arranged to prevent that very inspection. 

The dominant, oppressive ideas do not permeate the whole of 
society, rather their success is assured by the fragmented nature of 
opposition to them. Meanwhile, what society dreads most are precisely 
the lies it suspects it is built upon. This dread or avoidance is obviously 
not the same as beginning to subject a deadening force of circumstances 
to the force of events. 

Adomo noted in the ‘60s that society is growing more and more 
entrapping and disabling. He predicted that eventually talk of causation 
within society would become meaningless: society itself is the cause. The 



struggle toward a society — if it could still be called that-of the face-to-face, 
in and of the natural world, must be based on an understanding of society 
today as a monolithic, all-encompassing death march. 









HOW LONG AGO did our humanness begin? Evidence keeps pushing 
back the dates by which we exhibited various capacities and achievements. 
It has reached the point, with almost certainly more revelations to come, 
of presenting us with grounds for a new understanding of humanity in the 
neighborhood of two million years ago. 

This critical overview focuses on Homo erectus, who followed 
Homo habilis, the earliest human species, and survived for about 1.5 
million years. But it must be taken into account from the start that the 
taxonomic framework itself, looking at life as basically taxa or species, is 
not only questionable but somewhat confused. D.W. Cameron points out 
the “explosion” in the recognition of new hominid species and the questions 
this introduces. 1 Separate species vs. continuity of species is an issue, 
for example. Xinzhi Wu and Poirier point to “a long recognized general 
morphological similarity between Chinese H. erectus and subsequent 
H. sapiens in China,” 2 suggesting that a reasonable classification for the 
populations of more than the last one million years would be to include 
them all within our own species, Homo sapiens. “Does Homo erectus exist 
as a true taxon or should it be sunk into Homo sapiens?” asks Wenke. 3 
Perspectives, by the way, that imply the earlier and earlier emergence 
of human aptitudes. Taxonomic boundaries, then, are rather subjective 
constructs influenced by archaeological discoveries. 

There are still a few who do not see “fully modem” hunter-gatherers 
in the picture until about 40,000 years ago, 4 but such a view is being rapidly 
revised. An Ethiopian site yielded this Science Daily headline: “The Oldest 

Homo sapiens: Fossils Push Human Emergence Back to 195,000 Years Ago.” 5 
Even “early H. erectus,” Gilbert asserts, is “very similar postcranially to 
modem humans.” 6 Colin Tudge tells us, “There is no God-given lawthat says 
that Homo sapiens was or is the only bona fide species of human being,” 
adding that “the very first people who were more or less like ourselves.. .date 
from about five hundred thousand years ago.” 7 

But so often they were ignored altogether by researchers and scholars 
or looked at as strictly lower forms, consonant, for example, with the 
Aristotelian “Great Chain of Being” ranking all creatures along a continuum, 
from “beasts” to “higher” mankind, to the angels, etc. Similarly, some view 
Homo erectus as a creature of great but unrealized potential, failing to 
see our very early forebears on their own terms, for what they were in 

Nadia Seremetakis cited a once whole sensory state and our 
separation from that primal and originary experience. 8 Who we are and 
what we are doing here might be enriched by considering what obtained 
at the beginning, and for so vastly long a time. In what Giorgio Agamben 
calls the age of “total management,” we seem no longer recognizably either 
human or animal, lost in the movement toward a techno-existence. 9 

It is time to grant Homo erectus, using the term for present purposes, 
the humanness and abilities which are the species” due — notably ecological 
flexibility and premier generalist status in the world. 

The ultimate origin of the hominid family is that of the first bipedal 
apes, roughly 7.5 million years ago, not forgetting the contrast between 
the quite hierarchical nature of extant great apes and egalitarian hunter- 
gatherers. Ape-like in many or most respects were the Australopithecines 
in the original hominid birthplace, East Africa, until about three million 
years ago. This is the very approximate date for the beginning of the first 
human species, Homo habilis, or “handy man.” And close to two million 
years ago Homo erectus appears, “much more human in appearance, brain 
size, stature and culture,” judges Donald Merlin, adding that “With this 
species, a major threshold had been crossed in human evolution.” 10 

Stable social structures and home bases have indicated to many 
that for Homo erectus, sharing and cooperation — as with contemporary 
foraging societies — were key parts of an optimum survival strategy. 11 Homo 
erectus lasted close to two million years, all the way into the Neanderthal 
period about 200,000 years ago, during which time half of Earth’s mammal 



families became extinct. The persistence through time of Homo erectus is 
possibly the characteristic that stands out the most as we contemplate the 
potential brevity of Homo sapiens. Niles Eldridge reminds us that “That 

is, after all, the mark of success.” Erectus was remarkably successful at 
persevering, which calls to mind the familiar adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t 
fix it.” 12 In balance with the world, Homo erectus” extreme durability of 
over 1.8 million years offers an extreme contrast with the continuously 
innovating and unstable Homo sapiens species. 

To Paul S.C. Tacon it seems likely that “human ancestors have been 
behaviorally modem much longer than has generally been accepted,” 
including Homo erectus. 13 There is clear evidence, for example, of very 
early stone tool use to butcher large mammals. 14 There is now, by the 
way, considerable weight in the literature to the effect that early Homo 
was not only an opportunistic scavenger of carcasses, but also a skilled 
hunter. 15 Homo erectus, well adapted for life on the African savannah, tall 
and immensely strong, traveling far, with large brains, rich diets, cooking 
hearths, pair-bonding bands, simple and efficient technology. 

It is possible to see the hallmark of human evolution in terms of 
a release from proximity, as if estrangement from sensual interface with 
the natural world, rather than intimacy with it, were a desired goal. As 
if the loss of community and place were just an inevitable given. But it 
is not only that “both human social structure and human intellectual 
capabilities appeared quite early,” as Belfer-Cohen and Goren-Inbar have 

it. 16 “Primal versions of fidelity and truth, not simply sex and brute strength, 
had become key forces” in Homo erectus society. 17 The face-to-face bonds 
of early Paleolithic society provided immeasurably more connection than 
those of face-in-the-crowd mass society. Their world as experienced by any 
of its members must have been so much more multidimensional and in- 
depth than our own social existence. Here in itself are credible grounds for 
Leslie White’s conclusion that “Hunting and gathering was unquestionably 
the most satisfying social environment man has ever lived in.” 18 

More specifically, various physical and experiential shifts mark the 
arrival and maturation of Homo erectus. It was the first human species to 
possess a nearly hairless, non-ape-like skin and the first to have a projecting 
bony nose. Because erectus was a meat-eater, the species lacked the pot- 
bellied shape housing the bulky intestines required to digest a plant tissue 
diet. From the Australopithecines to Homo erectus the size of the brain 


The Way We Used to be 

doubled; and while an Australopithecine male was typically about twice the 
size of the female, with erectus the difference narrowed greatly, to about 
what it is today. 19 Overall size doubled, and for the first time humans had an 
extended dependency period in infancy and an adolescent growth spurt. 20 
From the fossilized east Kenya remains of so-called “Turkana boy” (1.6 mya) 
and earlier specimens it is clear that erectus was tall and lean, with arms 
and legs proportioned like ours. A body geared for endurance walking and 
running, like the famous Kenyan long-distance athletes of today. 21 

Anatomical shifts suggest increased longevity; increased size alone 
is an indicator of longer life, by the way. Hammer and Foler report that 
“longevity estimates are without exception larger” than previously 
thought, 22 while Swisher et al. judge that the “average Homo erectus 
probably lived six years longer than the average Australopithecine — that 
is, 50 years as against 44.” 23 H. Helmut finds that a “major extension of life 
potential occurred with and after Homo erectus ” based on “new calculations 
of Hominid maximum lifespan potentials,” with erectus upper limits of 70 
to 75 years. 24 

The species was the first to use fire, and lived in huts as well as 
caves. 25 Group size increased to about 100 on average, well beyond that of 
non-human primates or Homo habilis. 26 1.8-million-year-old faunal remains 
obtained from different areas indicate a wide range of erectus activity, 
specifically that food was already being transported long distances to be 
shared at home bases. 27 Complex foraging and ranging behavior happened 
over greater and more diverse areas, greatly surpassing any earlier hominid 

In fact, the emergence of Homo erectus coincides with its moving out 
across the world, which in itself is a difference from any other primates. 
This dispersal and its challenges constitute another marker of remarkable 
sapient development. Arrival in Java is verified as of 1.8 mya, in Dimansi 
in the Caucasus near the Caspian Sea from 1.8 to 1.96 mya, and in China 
around 1.9 mya. Huang Wanpo et al. push this further, concluding that 
“new evidence suggests that hominids entered Asia before 2 mya.” 28 

There is so very much of the human panorama, of course, that most 
likely will remain unknown to us. But the capability of our distant ancestors, 
though discerned through fragmentary, disconnected evidence rather than 
a seamless narrative, is revealing and provocative. 

About 850,000 years ago, Homo erectus was able to manage repeated 



sea crossings to the Indonesian island of Flores, 20 kilometers at the 
minimum. Stone tools that date from that period could not otherwise have 
been there. 29 This finding was almost unbelievable in light of the previous 
consensus that only Homo sapiens could have practiced such navigation. As 
Robert Bednarik noted, “Lower Paleolithic seafarers were technologically 
and cognitively far more advanced than archaeologists had ever thought 
possible.” 30 Nila Alperson-Afil and her colleagues have found evidence in 
Israel of the organization of living spaces for different activities. Although 
this behavior was long thought to have been exclusively the province of 
modem humans, this encampment is 790,000 years old. 31 Sophisticated 
wooden implements have been found in Germany, in use about 400,000 
years ago. It is very rare that wood is preserved as long, but the hunting 
spears of Schoningen provide “a completely new insight into the 
developmental stage and culture of early humans.” 32 Beautifully carved, 
the long spears were made of specially selected hard cores of larch and 
have a perfect balance and proportion. 33 These examples barely scratch 
the surface of what must have been numerous techniques — outside the 
relatively common surviving stone tools — involving shell, bone, bamboo 
and other structural plant materials, cordage, skins, wrapping, and other 
ancient means to desired ends. 

Richard Leakey wrote: “When I hold a Homo erectus cranium in my 
hand and look at it full face, I get a strong feeling of being in the presence of 
something distinctly human. It is the first point in human history at which 
a real humanness impresses itself so forcefully.” 34 A being, perhaps, from 
the beginning of hunter-gatherer consciousness, impressing Leakey as a 
person. Origins Reconsidered goes on to find in erectus the real start of “the 
burgeoning of compassion, morality, and conscious awareness.” 35 

An instructive instance is the remains of a woman who lived 1.7 
mya, known by the museum registration number assigned to her, 1808. 
She had suffered from vitaminosis A, a “completely immobilizing” condition 
caused by ingesting too much carnivore liver or honey; yet she survived 
for some months after its onset. “The implication stared me in the face,” 
wrote Walker and Shipman, “someone else took care of her,” or she “wouldn’t 
have lasted two days in the African bush.” 36 Their conclusion: “This was the 
appearance of a truly extraordinary social bond.” 37 There are certainly other 
cases as well, involving toothlessness, spinal cord conditions, etc., that give 
evidence of mutual aid and support from this time period. 38 


The Way We Used to be 

“Looking at the group structure of Homo erectus," according to George 
Frankl, “we can see that it was neither patriarchal nor matriarchal and we 
will be justified in calling it primal community.” 39 Sarah ESlaffer Hrdy finds 
that early sharing was spontaneous and automatic, and that both males 
and females started out “with an innate capacity for empathy for others 
and for nurture” which provided, for instance, a sense of emotional security 
in children back in the Pleistocene. 40 

The earliest exodus from the east African birthplace of humanity 
happened a lot earlier than once thought, and the mastery of fire probably 
accompanied that exodus, also far earlier than was thought. Boaz and Ciochon 
refer to Kenyan evidence of fire use “dated to an astonishingly early 1.7 
million years ago.” 41 But it now appears that fire was a crucial component of 
movement out of Africa, enabling settlement in colder climes and at higher 
altitudes. Uncooked food required massive, thick teeth; smaller teeth and 
thinner tooth enamel argue for cooked food, a very early evolutionary trend 
that continues to this day. 42 Kingdon finds that “firing foods, or cooking, was 
a ‘tool” that neutralized bacteria and toxins, released nutrients, and allowed 
a vast expansion in the food base by making indigestible material edible.” 43 
He also argues that fire was a likely success factor in excursions within 
and outside Africa, which speaks to “the possibility that it began to be used 
before two mya.” 44 In addition to warmth and the means to thaw, cook 
and smoke food, fire also deterred predators and almost certainly promoted 
social life as a site of food sharing and familial-type relationships, including 
care of the young. 

These feats show a depth of intelligence “noticeably higher than 
those usually ascribed” to those who lived so long ago. 45 The emerging 
record indicates that Homo erectus exhibited analogical reasoning, though 
Kate Robson Brown argues that minds in the Lower Paleolithic possessed a 
“cognitive capacity for which no current analogue exists.” 46 

We know that brain size surged as Homo habilis gave way to erectus 
around two mya. 47 Some fairly recent theorizing posits cooked food as the 
chief factor in the increase. 48 But in any case the brain’s shape may be 
as important as its size. Cerebral asymmetry also dates from this general 
period, as preferential handedness shows up. 

“The largest Homo erectus brains were about 1250 ml...and modem 
brains average about 1200-1500 ml. in volume,” 49 thus matching our 
own in cranial volume. Neanderthal brain size, 150,000 years ago, by the 


Future Primitive Revisited 

way, was greater than ours on average; that is, there has been an overall 
decline in brain volume during the past 150,000 years. 50 There are also 
large variations at any given period; e.g. the noted author and playwright 
Ivan Turgenev’s brain size was 2012 ml., while the perhaps equally gifted 
novelist and dramatist Anatole France’s was only 1040 ml. in size. 51 

In the evolution of intelligence, apparently not all parts of the brain 
evolved equally, nor are all parts equally important. 52 As the erectus brain 
grew apace, there was little change in technics; whereas today, as brain 
size has actually been shrinking, technological change is immense and 
accelerating. It is often said that we only use about 10 percent of our brains; 
perhaps we use ever less overall, as our estrangement from the world and 
each other deepens. 

Intelligence means the ability to handle knowledge as a whole; this 
is what humans excelled at in prehistory. It is we who are cognitively 

And what can be grasped by examining stone tools, those most 
enduring of artifacts? Stones can indeed speak and reveal much, directly 
and indirectly, about those who fashioned them into solutions on this earth. 

Of course, non-human animals also use tools. Crows, for example, 
use elevation as a tool, dropping nuts from suitable heights to crack them 
open; chimpanzees use sticks to force termites out of a log, etc. But they 
don’t make tools; according to Cameron and Groves, “there is no convincing 
evidence to date that species other than Homo were involved in the 
manufacture of stone tools. 53 

The discovery of stone tool use from 3.4 million years ago is a huge 
finding, 54 

A very early lithic technology mode is called Oldowan, from the 
Olduvai Gorge area of east Africa. This mode is associated with Homo 
habilis, the earliest human species. Oldowan toolmakers used some tools 
to produce others, which no non-human primate has done. Archaeologists 
report ever-earlier dates for evidence of human capacities in this realm. 
Semaw et al. found that “The sophisticated control and raw material 
selection...strongly suggests that stone tool use may have begun prior to 2.6 
my a but not earlier than 2.9 mya.” 55 Barham and Mitchell point to research 
pushing the time of earliest tool manufacture even a bit further back. 56 
They also conclude that such human practice at 2.6 mya shows “an already 
well-developed understanding of the mechanics of flaking” or knapping. 57 


the Way We Used to Be 

As Ignacio de la Torre noted, “The early tool makers are [now] seen as 
having recognized the principles of conchoidal fracture and having had the 
knowledge and technical skills required....” 58 Concerning this same time 
frame, Sheila Mishra concluded, “The surprising thing about the Oldowan 
stone tool industry is its sophistication.” 59 deHeinzelin et al. referred to 
the “surprisingly advanced character of...earliest Oldowan technology.” 60 
On evidence, Homo habilis was an intelligent, experienced, and technically 
accomplished tool maker. 

Oldowan tools give way to the Acheulean styles as Homo erectus 
appears, with cranial development very much like ours. What immediately 
comes to mind, with the new double-edge or biface Acheulean style 
is the iconic hand axe: a generally teardrop-shaped tool with congruent 
symmetry in three dimensions. Among many other devices including picks 
and cleavers, the hand axe stands out for what developed into its stunning 
craftsmanship and beauty, and a blade that often surpasses the sharpness 
of surgical steel. The very sight of such a creation erases any doubt as to its 
maker’s aptitude. 

Associated Acheulean practices strengthen this impression. Two 
million years ago, ancient humans in what is now Kanjeera, Kenya carried 
selected stone raw materials more than 13 kilometers to the site where 
they were worked. 61 A bit later, in the early Acheulean, this distance 
increased to 20 kilometers. 62 But it is also clear that while they ranged 
over greater distances in their decision-making, activities “occurred in close 
spatial proximity and as responses to immediate needs.” 63 This speaks to a 
direct, context-specific immediacy, perhaps the original example of James 
Woodbum’s immediate retum/delayed return contrast, in which the former 
social orientation is non-estranged, compared to the latter. 

Although there is so much less surviving evidence, a great range of 
other non-stone lifeworld materials existed. Microscopic fibers detected on 
hand axes testify to likely woodworking. Bone tools have come down to 
us, and both early human species could well have made implements from 
shell, bamboo, etc., and leather bags, carrying skins, snares, and so many 
other perishable things. 

The Acheulean style or level remained the norm for well over a 
million and a half years, all the way down to the next — and last — Paleolithic 
tradition, called Levallois, corresponding roughly to the appearance of 
Neanderthal humans about 250,000 years ago. The unchanging Acheulean 



has baffled the fields of archaeology and anthropology, especially because 
it’s clear that limited intellectual capacity is not the explanation for this 
tremendously long period of stasis. A basic approach, demanding but 
elegant, neither died out or was changed during thousands of generations. 
Why cast this as a conundrum, why frame it in terms of our own cultural 
mania for ceaseless innovation? Evidently there simply was no felt need in 
all that time to craft anything more complex. If Homo erectus humans were 
disinclined toward complex society, why would they express themselves 
through complex technics, inasmuch as the two are inseparable? Their 
whole mode of being remained non-specialized, skilled as a whole. They 
crafted their tools and they crafted their face-to-face band society, the one 
obviously reflecting the other. As Loren Eiseley summed it up, they were 
“using the sum total of [their] environment almost as a single tool,” 64 — and 
in enduring balance with that environment. 


1 The ability to reason preceded symbolic culture by millions of years. Society 

was evidently not dependent on symbolic systems of thought, for as Paul Jordan observes, 
“ symbolism of every sort is conspicuously lacking in the archaeological record until the 
arrival of the modern form of humanity." 65 It is unclear when language originated, but 
every other such aspect (e.g. cave art) is very recent. 

A symbol is that which stands for something else, represents something else ; it re- 
presents reality. Nonetheless, the term is used very loosely, which tends to obscure the 
significance of life outside the symbolic dimension. Henry de Lumley, for example, in 
discussing prehistory, refers to symbolic thought as an essential facet of human cognition, 
as a necessity for the emergence of consciousness, as synonymous with meaning or 
understanding. 66 Each of these assertions is baseless. 

Upper Paleolithic beads are a relatively recent case in point regarding the misuse of the 
term symbolic. In fine ahistoricfashion, d 'Enrico assures us that "beads have many different 
functions in human society, all eminently symbolic," 67 referring specifically to some that are 
75,000 years old. Robert Bednarik makes a similarly sweeping assessment of prehistoric 
beads: “ Their symbolic significance appears generically self-evident.” 68 Klein and Edgar 
have in mind beads found in Europe ca. 30,000 years ago: they “required extraordinary 
time and effort, which underscores the likelihood that they had symbolic meaning. 69 But 
there are countless activities done for their own sake, for satisfactions directly derived, and 
that do not represent something else. The fact of beads in no way necessarily establishes a 
symbolic component. 

The use of ochre by Homo neanderthalensis in the Upper Paleolithic is an even more 
commonly cited practice that purportedly indicates a symbolic dimension. Here we are 
approaching the actual arrival of symbolic culture, relatively recently, but the much- 



touted presence 0/ ochre, especially in burial practices, is less than wholly persuasive. 
As evidence of symbolic or ritualistic ideas, its red color suggests blood or death, and 
thus has been found on human remains. But it is also known that ochre has anti-odor 
qualities, so its use may simply indicate “an hygienic disposal of corpses so as not to attract 
scavenging carnivores ." 70 Burial itself, by the way, connotes respect for the dead and does 
not automatically include a symbolic connection. Evidence of ochre in settings other 
than graves has even less to do with symbolism or representation. Its anti-hemorrhage, 
antiseptic qualities are known to indigenous people today and probably to our forebears, 
along with its hide-curing properties and as a component in tool-hafting adhesives . 71 

Thomas Wynn could not detect the symbolic in the crafting of hand axes, with their 
grace and beauty. They “did not require grammar-like rules and did not require symbolic 
instruction ." 72 Observation and practice, not symbols, account for proficiency. Darwin 
argued both in The Descent of Man and The Expression of the Emotions that it was quite 
possible to form concepts without words. “The earliest unequivocal evidence for the use of 
symbols occurs very late," according to Shipman and Walker . 73 

“The word prohibits the senses.... The speaking tongue kills the tasting tongue," 
warns Michel Serres . 74 But symbols began to structure social life. The more complex the 
representational systems became, the more distancing from reality was involved, and the 
more complex and stratified society slowly became. 

Ultimately we arrived at our present state of radical insufficiency, so removedfrom the 
essentials of existence. The feeling of being part of everything, including the cycle of birth 
and death, has been overcome by a preoccupation with control or mastery over everything. 

Death is denied by the lonely modern individual engaged in a life without connection, 
without meaning. The loss of a sense of a full life makes life unbearable and death shameful, 
something to be hidden. Adorno referred to “the expropriation even of his dying, [which] 
destroys even the appearance of life's meaning as a coherent whole, that seals the loss of 
humane, autonomous subjectivity ." 75 

Philippe Aries wrote of the invisibility of modern death, as indicative of the loss of 
communal solidarity and the increasing control of experts over social and personal life . 76 
Once managed openly as a part of vivid, direct life, death becomes invisible and silenced. 
As we live less completely, death becomes more of a terror. In his old age, contemplating an 
aged crow, Loren Eiseley gave us a healthy counter-perspective: “Neither of us had much 
further to go, and the harsh simplicity of it was somehow appropriate and gratifying ." 77 

For thousands of centuries human life was virtually unchanged, in the vast time before 
overpopulation, drudge work, wars, the objectification of women, political authority. But of 
course there are those who lament this extended “failure" to innovate and progress. George 
Dimock looks at The Odyssey to decry the absence of forward movement. He focuses on the 
self-satisfied, non-domesticated Cyclops, who “put hand to no planting or plowing." Dimock 
argues that this paradisical state is actually a negative condition, in that it “deprived 
them of the stimulus to develop human institutions." Pain is needed for self-development, 
according to Dimock. Technology in particular 'assists the birth of the individually 
separating him from the natural world ." 78 Domestication/civilization in a nutshell, in its 
repressive essence. 

We see the falsity of such a formulation much more clearly now, as the toll of 
“development" mounts in every sphere of life. Grahame Clark, in fact, reversed the dominant 
notion many decades ago, noting, “I venture to think that Paleolithic man has more meaning 
than the Greeks .’ 79 That timeless, history-less past and what followed might be seen in this 
light: “History exists only in a persisting society which needs history to persist ." 80 

With very early Homo we may be encountering a human animal “without any modern 
parallels ." 81 However that may be— and we will never know with full clarity— that make-up, 



that orientation to our mother Earth exerts a definite pull. Darwin writes of the Fuegian 
Jemmy Burton, who spent many years in England only to rapidly return to native ways 
upon a return voyage to South America. 112 What dismayed Darwin should encourage us. 
The tie was not broken and the lure of non-regimentation remained, as it was also felt by 
European colonists who “ went native," attracted by indigenous life-ways. 

Glenn C. Conroy opens his Reconstructing Human Origins with this.- “To all creatures 
wild and free I dedicate this book. The success of human evolution has not been kind to 
you." 83 

We are among those creatures. We have forgotten how we once lived, how we were 
meant to live. With the connection to the living world all but gone in this techno-world. Our 
species wars against itself; what touches our hearts now is sadness and disquiet. And yet 
the abundance that was persists, a beacon to guide us back toward a vivid, healed, being- 
present state. 

1 D.W. Cameron, "Early Hominid Speciation at the Plio/Pleistocene Transition," 
HOMO 54/1 (2003), p. 1. 

2 Zinzhi Wu and Frank E. Poirier, Human Evolution in China (New York: Oxford 
University Press, 1995), p. 113. 

3 Cited in Robert A. Wenke, Patterns in Prehistory (New York: Oxford 
University Press, 1999), p. 165. 

4 Sibel Baruti Kusimba, African Foragers (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 
2003), p. 117, for example. 

5 “The Oldest Homo sapiens: Fossils Push Human Emergence Back to 195,000 
Years Ago," Science Daily, February 28, 2005. 

6 W. Henry Gilbert in Gilbert and Bershane Asfa, eds., Homo erectus: 

Pleistocene Evidence from the Middle Awash, Ethiopia (Berkeley: University 
of California Press, 2008), p. 424. 

7 Colin Tudge with Josh Young, The Link: Uncovering our Earliest Ancestors 
(New York: Little, Brown, 2009), pp 198, 199. 

8 C. Nadia Seremetakis, The Senses Still (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994), p. 


9 Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal (Stanford: Stanford University 
Press, 2004), p. 77. 

10 Donald Merlin, Origins of the Modern Mind (Cambridge, MA: Harvard 
University Press, 1991), p. 112. 

11 Tim Megarry, Society in Prehistory (New York: New York University Press, 
1995), p. 222, for instance. 

12 Both quotes: Niles Eldridge, Dominion (New York: Henry Holt, 1995), p. 75. 

13 Paul S.C. Tagon, “Identifying Ancient Religious Thought and Iconography," in 
Colin Renfrew and Iain Morley, eds.. Becoming Human (New York: Cambridge 
University Press, 2009), p. 70. 

14 Heinzelin et al., "Environment and Behavior of 2.5 Million-Year-Old Bouri 
Hominids," Science 284 (23 April 1999), p. 625. 



15 Manuel Dominguez-Rodrigo, “Hunting and Scavenging by Early Humans: 

The State of the Debate," Journal of World Prehistory 16:1 (March 2002), for 

16 Anna Balfer-Cohen and Naana Goren-Inbar, “Cognition and Communication 
in the Levantine Lower Paleolithic,” World Archaeology 26:2 (1994), p. 

153. Also, "Homo erectus seems to represent a kind of turning point for 
information donation among hominids," Barbara J. King, The Information 
Continuum (Santa Fe, SAR Press, 1994), p. 109. 

17 Chip Walter, Thumbs, Toes and Tears (New York: Walker and Company, 

2006), p. 121. 

18 Leslie White, The Evolution of Culture (New York: Grove Press, 1959), p. 107. 

19 R.W. Wrangham et al., “The Raw and the Stolen: Cooking and the Ecology of 
Human Origins,” Current Anthropology 40:3 (December 1999), p. 574. 

20 Carl C. Swisher III, Gamiss H. Curtis, Roger Lewin, Java Man (New York: 
Scribner, 2000), p. 132. Also J.F. O’Connell et al., "Grandmothering and the 
Evolution of Homo erectus," in Jack M. Broughton and Michael D. Cannon, 
Evolutionary Ecology and Archaeology (Salt Lake City: University of Utah 
Press, 2010). 

21 Rick Potts, Humanity’s Descent (New York: William Morrow, 1996), p. 125. 
Homo erectus, it should be added, is also commonly referred to as Homo 
ergaster in African contexts. 

22 M.L.A. Hammer and R.A. Foler, “Longevity and Life History in Hominid 
Evolution,” Journal of Human Evolution 11:1 (1996), p. 64. 

23 Swisher et al., op.cit., p. 159. 

24 H. Helmut, “The Maximum Lifespan Potential of Hominidae — A Re- 
evaluation,” HOMO 50/3 (1999), p. 64. 

25 Dean Falk, Braindance (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2004), p. 172. 

26 Peter Carruthers and Andrew Chamberlain, Evolution and the Human Mind 
(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 253. 

27 D.W. Phillipson, African Archaeology (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University 
Press, 2005), p. 50. 

28 Huang et al., “Early Homo and Associated Artifacts from Asia,” Nature 378 
(1995), pp 275-278. Also, Ian Tattersall and Jeffrey H. Schwartz, Extinct 
Humans (New York: Westview Press, 2000), p. 160. 

29 Robert G. Bednarik, “Replicating the First Known Sea Travel by Humans: 
the Lower Pleistocene Crossing of the Lombok Strait,” Journal of Human 
Evolution 16:3 (2001), p. 229. 

30 Robert G. Bednarik, “Seafaring in the Pleistocene,” Cambridge Archaeological 
Journal 13:1 (2003), p. 57. 

31 John Noble Wilford, "Excavation Sites Show Distinct Living Areas Early in 
Stone Age,” Science 18 (December 2009). 

32 Thieme Hartmut, “Lower Paleolithic Hunting Spears from Germany,” Nature 
385 (1999), p. 810. 



33 Bo Graslund, Early Humans and their World (New York: Routledge, 2005), pp 

34 Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin, Origins Reconsidered : In Search of What 
Makes us Human (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 55. 

35 lb id., p. 67. 

36 Alan Walker and Pat Shipman, The Wisdom of the Bones (New York: Alfred A. 
Knopf, 1996), pp 165-166. 

37 Ibid., p. 167. 

38 Donald C. Johanson and Kate Wong, Lucy's Legacy (New York: Harmony 
Books, 2009), pp 206-207. 

39 George Frankl, The Social History of the Unconscious (London: Open Gate 
Press, 2003), p. 76. 

40 Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 
2009), pp 12, 290. 

41 Noel T. Boaz and Russell L. Ciochon, Dragon Bone Hill: An Ice-Age Saga of 
Homo erectus (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 104. 

42 Peter S. Ungar, ed., Evolution of the Human Diet (New York: Oxford 
University Press, 2007), pp 60, 352. 

43 Jonathan Kingdon, Lowly Origin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 

2003), p.273. 

44 Ibid. 

45 Belfer-Cohen and Goren-Inbar, op.cit., p. 146. 

46 Kate Robson Brown, “An Alternative Approach to Cognition in the Lower Paleo- 
lithic: The Modular View," Cambridge Archaeological Journal 3:2 (1993), p. 231. 

47 Phillip V. Tobias, “The Craniocerebral Interface in Early Hominids," in Robert 
S. Corruccini and Russell L. Ciochon, eds., Integrative Paths to the Past 
(Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1994), p. 193, for example. 

48 “Did Cooked Tubers Spur the Evolution of Big Brains?," Science 283 (March 
26, 1999), p. 2004. Also R. Rowlett, “Did the Use of Fire for Cooking Lead 
to a Diet Change that Resulted in the Expansion of Brain Size in Homo 
erectus...?," Science 283 (1999), p. 2005. 

49 Christopher Stringer and Clive Gamble, In Search of the Neanderthals (New 
York: Thames and Hudson, 1993), p. 82. 

50 Stephen Oppenheimer, The Real Eve (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003), p. 11. 

51 Boaz and Ciochon (2004), op.cit., p. 124. 

52 Robert Foley, Humans before Humanity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995), p. 

53 David W. Cameron and Colin P. Groves, Bones, Stones and Molecules (New 
York: Academic Press, 2004), p. 282. 

54 Shannon McPherron, “Evidence for stone-tool-assisted consumption 
of animal tissues before 3.39 million years ago in Didika, Ethiopia," Nature, 
August 12, 2010. 


The Way We Used to be 

55 Semaw et al„ “2.6 Million-year-old Stone Tools and Associated Bones from 
OGS-6 and OGS-7, Gona, Afar, Ethiopia," Journal of Human Evolution 45 
(2003), p. 176. 

56 Lawrence Barham and Peter Mitchell, The First Africans (New York: 
Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 82. 

57 Ibid., p. 157. 

58 Ignacio de la Torre, “Evaluating the Technological Skills of Pliocene 
Hominids,” Current Anthropology 45:4 (August-October 2004), p. 439. 

59 Sheila Mishra, “The Lower Paleolithic: A Review of Recent Findings,” Man 
and Environment xxxiii (l)-2008, p. 16. 

60 de Heinzelin et al., “Environment and Behavior of 2.5 Million-Year-Old Bouri 
Hominids," Science 284 (April 23, 1999), p. 629. Also de la Torre et al, “The 
Oldowan Industry of Peninj and its Bearing on the Reconstruction of the 
Technological Skills of Lower Pleistocene Hominids," Journal of Human 
Evolution 44 (2003), pp 203-224. 

61 Shanta Barley, "Earliest Evidence of Humans Thriving on the Savannah," 

New Scientist 18:07 (October 21, 2009). 

62 Michael P. Noll and Michael D. Petraglia, “Acheulean Bifaces and Early 
Human Behavior Patterns in East Africa and South India,” in Marie 
Soressi and Harold L. Dibble, eds. Multiple Approaches to the Studio of 
Bifacial Technologies (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of 
Archaeology and Anthropology, 2003), p. 3. 

63 Ibid., p. 47. 

64 Loren Eiseley, The Invisible Pyramid (New York: Scribner, 1970), p. 58. 

65 Paul Jordan, Neanderthal (Thrupp, UK: Sutton, 1999), p. 152. 

66 Henry de Lumley, “The Emergence of Symbolic Thought," in Renfrew and 
Morley, op.cit., p. 10. 

67 Francesco d’Enrico and Marian Vanhaeren, “Evolution or Revolution? New 
Evidence for the Origin of Symbolic Behavior in and Out of Africa," in Paul 
Mellars, ed„ Rethinking the Human Revolution (Cambridge, U.K.: David 
Brown, 2007), p. 276. 

68 Robert G. Bednarik, “Beads and Pendants of the Pleistocene," Anthropos 96 
(2001), p. 545. 

69 Richard G. Klein with Blake Edgar, The Dawn of Human Culture (New York: 
Wiley, 2002), p. 265. 

70 Salley McBrearty and Alison Brooks, “The Revolution that Wasn’t,” Journal of 
Human Evolution 39:5 (2000), p. 519. 

71 Bruno S, “The Multi-Use of Ochre in Prehistory,” Human Evolution 23:3 
(2008), pp 233-239. 

72 Thomas Wynn, “Handaxe Enigmas," World Archaeology 27 (1995), p. 10. 

73 Walker and Shipman, op.cit., p. 283. 

74 Michel Serres, The Five Senses (New York: Continuum, 2009), p.186. It could 
be that signaling theory in anthropology and disjunction in philosophy 



may help provide alternatives to the symbolic’s more or less exclusive 
claim on communication and knowledge. See Rebecca Bliege Bird and 
Eric Alden Smith, “Signalling Theory, Strategic Interaction, and Symbolic 
Capital," Current Anthropology 46:2 (April 2005); Adrian Haddock and Fiona 
Macpherson, eds., Disjunctivism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); 
Alex Bryne and Heather Logue, eds., Disjunctivism (Cambridge, MA: MIT 
Press, 2009). 

75 G. Schweppenhaus, Theodor W. Adorno (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 
1009), p. 67. 

76 Philippe Aries (translated by Helen Weaver), The Hour of Our Death (New 
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. 

77 Loren Eiseley, The Unexpected Universe (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 
1969), p. 191. 

78 George E. Dimock, The Unity of the Odyssey (Amherst: University of 
Massachusetts Press, 1989), p. 10. 

79 J.G.D. Clark, Economic Prehistory: Papers on Archaeology by Grahame Clark 
(New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 416. 

80 Elias J. Bickerman, “Mesopotamia," in John A. Garraty and Peter Gay, eds., 
The Columbia History of the World (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 49. 

81 M.D. Petraglia et al., “A Case Study from India: Life and Mind in the 
Acheulean," in Clive Gamble and Martin Porr, eds., The Hominid Individual in 
Context (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 217. 

82 Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle (New York: Penguin Books, 1989 
[1839], Introduction by Janet Browne and Michael Neve, p. 24. 

83 Glenn C. Conroy, Reconstructing Human Origins (New York: W.W. Norton, 
2005), frontispiece. 


the Way We Used to Be 




FOR A WHILE NOW the culture, more and more a technoculture, has 
gravely negated the realm of ends or goals. The erosion of hope for a better 
tomorrow, for some different destination than this projected one, has also 
banned the topic of origins. To rule out ends is to take away the legitimacy 
of seeking beginnings. That there was, is, and always will be only this 
broken condition is the cardinal thesis of the still dominant postmodern 
cultural ethos. 

Theory awaits a massive qualitative infusion from somewhere. Would 
it be surprising to find that what originates and what has been experienced 
along our journey from our sources can be of value to us now? The need to 
think about and pursue disalienated ends may be linked to understanding 
the origins of our current state. 

Nietzsche probably did more to dismiss the importance of starting 
points than any other modem figure. In Daybreak he claimed that “the more 
insight we possess into origin the less significant does the origin appear .” 1 
This charge of irrelevance is erroneous. 

Something in us resists giving up our beginnings, even as modernity 
pushes the sense that we are well past all of that. “Postmodemity” is the 
conscious suppression of any awareness of origins, any lingering hopes for 
originary thinking. 

Origin is source, that from which something else derives. The 
forgetting and denial of origin is a phenomenon of some importance, an 
historical development in itself. 

All myths have as their subject the origin of something. And are 
we ever without myth? The anarchy myth is, at base, a story of original 
innocence corrupted by institutions. In a similar vein, Schelling asserted that 
“everything that surrounds us points back to a past of incredible grandeur .” 2 
In Myth and Reality, Mircea Eliade wrote of the hope for a rebirth that is 
part of returning to origins. That return is much less a question of repair 
than of re-creation, in his view . 3 

But in an age of no meaning, one does not try to restore “original” 
meaning. We seem to be officially barred from the idea that origins research 
and origins stories tell how the world changed, was made richer or poorer. 

Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger each disclosed a primal state destroyed 
by the progressive domination of capital, Christian morality, or technology. 
Marx projected class struggle and production onto all previous history and 
confused the liberation of productive forces with the liberation of humans. 
His origin was a lack: we initially failed at satisfying our basic needs. 
Nietzsche looked at the violent and bloody origins of Christian morality and 
found them unjustifiable. Heidegger counseled us to step back into origins 
to better see how technological nihilism has put an end to metaphysics. 

But thought has turned away from this theme. “We have grown 
increasingly suspicious of accounts of origins over the past hundred years,” 
according to James Hans . 4 The same is true of much radical social theory. 
In terms of French insurrectionary politics, for example, Tiqqun’s “Bloom" 
figure, existing only in the present, expresses “no lament over the loss of 
authenticity or autonomy .” 5 Given that we are perpetually impoverished 
in this here-and-now, such an orientation might appear strange. The main 
explanation as to why many do not find it strange is the failure of long- 
range predictions based on theory, e.g. Marxism. The destructive outcomes 
of Marxism in practice had already been perversely implicit in Hegel’s view 
that from an original primal unity would emerge a higher, perfected state 
of the world. Needless to say, we witnessed nothing of the sort. 

Something went profoundly wrong, and not just in theory. Adorno’s 
insight is deeply relevant today: “More in line with the catastrophe that 
impends is the supposition of an irrational catastrophe in the beginning .” 6 In 
the beginning, that is, of domestication and civilization, at their origination. 
But as Hilary Lawson has it, “...we are lost. Lost in a world that has no map .” 7 

When confidence succumbs to a sense of failure, a map is no longer 
sought. Then we have not only lost our way; we have lost our sense of the 



immanence and immediacy of origins. And the toll of this loss mounts. The 
suppression or denial of originary thinking drives up levels of anxiety and 
fearfulness. “The pressures are unbearable,” says the German sociologist 
Ulrich Beck . 8 It becomes harder and harder to blithely agree with Kant that 
paradise is an origin it is better to forget, a utopia lost once and for all. 

There must be some primordial notion that directs us on some level 
to know the loss, to miss deeply a reunion denied. To miss “the meaningful 
times for whose return the early Lukacs yearned ...” 9 And to move to a 
situation, in Kevin Tucker’s marvelous phrase, when “ancestral bodies begin 
to remember .” 10 

Before/outside the dimension of calendars, domestication, mono- 
theism, writing, etc., the boundaries of past, present, and future were more 
permeable, as were the boundaries between humans and other animals. 
Some of this perseveres among indigenous people today, carried along 
mainly by countless creation stories in various parts of the world. These 
stories, told in a more originary than representational manner, make for 
a past-as-present that abides. Creation as a privileged moment in which 
origin discloses essence. 

The cosmologies may speak of events prior to the creation of 
humans, when animals and gods were impossible to distinguish. Further 
on, perhaps, the creation of human beings who managed the world in the 
gods” interests, revealing along the way much about changes in society. The 
adaptive identities of contemporary Native America often find strength in 
the authentic pasts that stay alive in such sources as stories of beginnings, 
as well as those in current indigenous literature. Louis Owens, among many 
others, expresses connection with “eternal and immutable” values and 
insights in resisting the fragmentation of the present . 11 

The origin can also open up primary paradigms that cast light on our 
plight today, on negative underpinnings. Stories of emergence so very often 
repeat a tale of order out of primordial chaos, wherein formless disorder 
(e.g. water and nothing else) is overcome by structure, a.k.a. civilization. A 
basic Babylonian myth posits Marduk’s victory over Tiamat, establishing 
Marduk’s royal authority. The Rig Veda from Vedic India features the god 
Indra who masters Vitra, primordial chaos. Vitra is very much like the 
Egyptian figures Apep or Apophis: darkness, lack of order. 

Andaman Islanders, hunter-gatherers east of India, practice no cult, 
no ritual sacrifice or prayer of thanks . 12 But the Vedic Indians sacrificed, 


Origins and the Trickster 

their ritual marked off by a furrow of cultivation to fence out the forces of 
chaos. A natural order versus the maintenance of civilized, political order. 
Always the origin before the official one. 

The Canaanite Ba’al subdued the unruly cosmic waters, Yahweh 
of the Israelites likewise, most graphically by parting the Red Sea and 
enabling the flight from Egypt. Power over nature and the movement to 
domesticated monotheism. The creation story is over and history begins. 
Banished: the time of no days and no years. 

A cosmic egg is central to emergence stories in Africa, Polynesia, and 
Japan, to name a few sites. It is an archetypal symbol of agriculture and 
fertility, announcing the arrival of the nascent regime. Water symbolism 
is present not only as prehuman flux but also as destruction: flood stories 
are found in many cultures, both as a promise of a new order and a threat 
to those who would resist it. The earth-diver is another common motif, a 
figure who dives deep into the water to bring up the first, founding bits of 
the Earth. Charles Long associated “the dualism in the earth-diver myths 
with the tension between hunting-fishing and agricultural orientations” in 
North America . 13 

In the central Dine/Navajo emergence story, First Man undertakes 
the subduing and organizing of nature with a sacred Red- White Stone. But 
this involves a question: “Why is the sacred stone which brings about the 
desired upward movement also that which violently disturbs the people 
and makes them afraid ?” 14 Meanwhile, the “upward movement” goes on 
and growth, not balance, proceeds, “...and growth is most assuredly going on 
because the eleventh crop is being planted .” 15 Patriarchy and domestication 
seem to develop in tandem, but again, not without misgivings or other, 
resistant paths. “As time went on the men’s agriculture increased,” along 
with more ritual, “while the women played and were promiscuous with 
the various lower forms of life .” 16 “Promiscuous” with Coyote, the trickster, 
in particular. Southwest Indian narratives, including Navajo ones, reveal 
the movement of hunter shamans away from a hunter-gatherer ethos to 
greater emphasis on ceremonial knowledge. At the same time egalitarian 
human flux recedes in value . 17 

In the basic Navajo story there are many beginnings and as many 
endings, thus yet keeping alive the possibility of the egalitarian condition. 
The early gods lived there as divine tricksters, unafraid of “chaos.” When 
the cosmos was being ordered into fixity, we see who confronted such an 


Future Primitive Revisited 

approach: “Then Coyote came in and said, 'What is going on?” And snatched 
the bag of stars and spilled them all over the sky .” 18 

As Coyote, or in other guises, the trickster is the oldest figure in Native 
American stories, indeed in all mythologies. Scandinavia’s Wotan embodies 
trickster sensibility; there is Anansi the Spider in West Africa; Polynesia has 
its tricksters. How about Renard the Fox of medieval French legend, and 
Shakespeare’s Caliban, protesting against civilization? 

Trickster tales reach back from a time of a world that once was whole, 
but was already in fragments when the first attempts to record these stories 
took place. Trickster stories are not meant to edify, but to account for and 
participate in the origin of the universe. And Coyote, for example, has to do 
with local origins, and so leads the people to explore their heritage and their 

“The trickster,” according to Mathias Guenther, “is a virtually universal 
figure in world mythology, especially that of hunter-gatherers, on whose 
mythological landscape he holds center stage .” 19 Coyote is a wanderer, one 
who does not quite belong — especially in domesticated society. No one 
quite belongs in civilization, so the trickster’s appeal has outlasted hunter- 
gatherer life, an unusual focus of interest — apparently never more so than 
today. A relative of the shaman, “the Trickster would return to make the 
happy world that once was .” 20 

The trickster’s elemental, amoral energy does not recognize boundaries. 
Speaking of which, it is not so easy to get a fix on this character, who fairly 
often displays contradictory elements. And in the literature there is not 
always a formal distinction between trickster and non-trickster narratives; 
the Ewe people, for example, do not divide their stories in that way. Coyote 
is certainly too lively and restless to be contained within academic systems. 

Ture is a Zande trickster of Africa. Azande parents warn their children 
about this depraved being. He flouts every convention and is indomitable, a 
hero who helps his people — and yet his uninhibited acts can be monstrous . 21 
Another African trickster is the Yoruba rascal known as Ajapa, a tortoise. 
In stories mainly told by women, Ajapa is averse to work, lazy and carefree. 
Though far from flawless, he is an aid to the people; in the “Bounteous 
Ladle” tale, for instance, he acts on behalf of starving creatures . 22 Wild and 
a creature of his appetites as he often is, the trickster may act from a pure 
joy of trickery. 

A trickster may seem to be animal, human, animal-human, even a 


Origins and the trickster 

shaman’s invaluable assistant. Generally disrupting and subverting social 
and cultural norms, but often with compassion and humor, illustrating the 
fact that laughter can open doors and allow us to see reality differently. 
As Michael Jackson concluded, “All trickster tales seem to imply that 
immersion in the given, established values and conventions of the social 
order must be offset by free play, experimentation and detachment .” 23 

StoTo Coast Salish scholar Jo-Ann Archibald (Q’um Q’um XIIEM) 
goes further, referring to the “weak and fragmented” condition of many 
indigenous communities and how trickster stories help communities 
survive despite the odds . 24 

Colardelle-Diarrassouba, commenting on the Hare cycle of stories 
of the Ewe in Togo, tells us that it is primarily about the preservation of 
ancestral traditions . 25 Tomson Highway of the Cree Nation states that 
without the Trickster, “the core of Indian culture would be gone forever,” 
adding that the role of the Trickster “is to teach us about the nature and the 
meaning of existence on the planet earth .” 26 

Coyote can move from mythic into modem times. The Comanches of 
the southern plains tell how he tricked white soldiers and preachers . 27 Coyote 
of the Nez Perce people may depose a chief if he is acting inappropriately . 28 
Wishram Chinook people of the Columbia River give us this quote: “Coyote 
said: Salmon is a chief, Eagle is a chief, and people will be chiefs. I am 
Coyote, I am no chief ." 29 But in Barre Toelken's judgment, Coyote is “the 
exponent of all possibilities .” 30 

Many American Indians now live in cities, and coyotes, Cams latrans — 
also known for adaptive skills — live there also. Both sets of city-dwellers 
have striking talents as survivors, against great odds. Like the Azande 
trickster Spider (Ture in the Zande language), a creature that makes a web 
out of itself, trickster Coyote and animal coyote are clever, tenacious, and 
elusive. Both can live interstitially — on the margins and across borders — 
escaping the negative structures of society to survive and carry on. 

The trickster, as Barbara Babcock-Abrahams reminds us, “keeps the 
possibility of transcending the social restrictions we regularly encounter .” 31 
He does so hunter-style: every hunter is necessarily a trickster in order to 
be successful. Paul Radin wrote of the Winnebagos” trickster, “With the 
worlds of nature he is still in close contact .” 32 A century and a half ago, 
Daniel Brinton referred to the advice of the Tonkaways, a “wild people” 
in Texas: “Do as the wolves do...never cultivate the soil .” 33 Robert Pelton 



felt it “likely that hunters have imagined their tricksters differently from 
agriculturalists.” 34 

If the trickster was “the chief mythological figure of the Paleolithic 
world,” in Joseph Campbell’s phrase, 35 he is also part of the transition 
to the more controlled role of cultural hero. Even the primal vitality of 
this sometimes obscene funster feels the force of repression, as hunter- 
gatherer life gave way to settled, agricultural societies. The role of the 
trickster diminishes the more strongly a people has been influenced by a 
domesticated way of life. 36 William Bright points out that in California and 
the Great Basin, where most indigenous people were hunters and gatherers 
until the mid-nineteenth century, Coyote is most often the “prototypical 
mythic trickster.” In the more sedentary and largely agricultural indigenous 
Southwest, he is generally the loser or bungler. 37 

And yet Trickster persists, and has a wide appeal. In some incarnations 
he ends up domesticated, like us. “He” is overwhelmingly the correct 
pronoun, but there are some females (e.g. among the Hopi and Tiwa). 38 

A defiantly domesticated spirit remains compelling. This defiance 
continues to haunt an increasingly tamed and unhappy world. It may be 
that the incidence of trickster tales has a direct relationship to the degree 
of social oppressiveness. 

Trickster may flaunt ideal ceremonial behaviors, ridiculing whatever 
is regarded with the greatest reverence or respect. Wadjunkago, for instance, 
of the Winnebagos. 39 Wadjunkago also savagely satirized the customs of 
war, that staple of domestication. 40 

Going against all that is forbidden, trickster certainly does not always 
win. In a comic inversion of the official story, he deconstructs social limits. 
As Nanabozho of the Ojibway tradition, he is alternately the savior of his 
people, and a buffoon and sexual aggressor. 41 Some tales have nothing to do 
with breaking taboos or bringing disorder, it should be added. 

The late Micmac writer Patricia Clarke Smith cautioned that non- 
Native attempts to grasp the meaning of Coyote are fraught with pitfalls. 42 
Non-Native Barre Toelken spent 30 years studying Navajo Coyote stories 
and conceded an appropriate humility and sense of limits. Most especially, 
he realized that the stories may be used for healing ceremonies and are not 
to be compromised. 43 

This tiny survey does not begin to approach the magnitude and 
depth of its subject. Distantly, I may be part of the Zerza tribe of Kurds, 


Origins and the trickster 

as I was told on a visit to Turkey. But I have no living connection at all 
to this people. I offer the words of this essay in acknowledgement of my 
place as a non-Native outsider, in hopes of possible, if slight use-value. 
Anarcho-primitivist in orientation, I respect and am deeply inspired by the 
indigenous dimension, past and present. 

Postmodernism, in particular and in its more general cultural 
sense, has pitted itself against the idea of creation stories and grounded 
Trickster realities. The voice of cynicism, isolation, and technological 
ungroundedness, postmodernism insists on the “effacement of historical 
origins and endings .” 44 Accepting the fragmented and depthless reality of 
mass society, postmodernism is the turn away from traditions, away from 
origins, to the weightless zone of surface and word play. 

Jacques Derrida, postmodern deconstructionist par excellence, 
stressed that there can be no stable meaning at all, because its sense is 
endlessly being deferred (“differance”). Deconstruction is a prime aspect of 
what Stefan Morawski has called the resultant “universal theory of the 
impossibility of theory.” A debilitating approach reflecting a debilitated 
cultural condition, that of the victorious pressure of modem civilization . 45 

Contra “the possibility to mean that the trickster celebrates,” in 
Anne Doneihi’s phrase , 46 postmodernism denies both its possibility and its 
possible connection to an independent reality. “There is nothing outside the 
text,” as Derrida famously proclaimed, to which he later appended, there 
is no “inside” either . 47 Inside the symbolic, that is, there can only be a play 
of an infinity of “meanings,” with no real contact with anything else. This 
is the case, was always the case, and always will be the case, it proclaims. 

Any actual origins must, by definition, be denied; for they are 
obviously extralinguistic. The myth of some lost Native land of thought 
must be abandoned. Even the original — and persevering — expression of any 
such thought is discarded. Oral tradition? Derrida’s absurd privileging of 
writing over speech is the answer to that deeply meaningful source. To see 
the “world” as so many marks on paper or a screen, marks whose meanings 
can only be arbitrarily constituted, is to refuse active, living process. 

The consequences of reducing everything to the linguistic are, of 
course, profound. Paul de Man avers that “Ethics has nothing to do with 
the will (thwarted or free) of a subject, nor a fortiori with a relationship 
between subjects .” 48 Language itself, “defining” everything, refers after all 
only to itself. Therefore to speak of ethics among people who really exist 



makes no “sense.” The impossibility of a determined discursive position is 
necessarily the end of responsibility. Perfect for a corrupt, declining social 
order from which community has evaporated. 

Postmodernism clearly feeds a shrunken sense of human agency, 
one without origins or goals. It bespeaks a fatalistic pessimism and is the 
mode of the digital age, in thrall to the functioning of massive technological 
systems. It is the dominant outlook, too severely limited to be capable of 
rational critique of the present, ominous conditions of society and the 

“Postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process 
is complete and nature is gone for good,” summarized Frederic Jameson . 49 
Another chilling facet, reminding us that, as David Wood put it, “the value 
of nature today is inseparable from mourning.” Wood added that this “is not 
mourning for a lost purity, a privileged identity, but rather for a lost wealth 
of differential possibility .” 50 

The possibility that postmodernism defines itself against. But it 
seems to me that the doors to these riches — so disrespected by some — are 
locked from the inside. To go forward, Adorno tells us that “hope is not a 
memory held fast, but the return of what has been forgotten .” 51 

“Postindian consciousness is a rush of shadows in the distance, and 
the trace of natural reason to a bench of stones; the human silence of 
shadows, and animate shadows over presence. The shadow is that sense 
of intransitive motion to the referent; the silence in memories. Shadows 
are neither the absence of entities nor the burden of conceptual references. 
The shadows are the prenarrative silence that inherits the words; shadows 
are the motions that mean the silence, but not the presence or absence 
of entities. The sounds of words, not the criteria of shadows and natural 
reason, are limited in human consciousness and the distance of discourse .” 52 

Which Parisian postmodernist wrote the above, you may ask? 
None other than Anishinaabe Gerald Vizenor, among the most gifted 
and provocative Native American writers of recent decades. This opaque 
passage does not do adequate justice to the range of Vizenor’s generally 
playful, original and stimulating stories, novels, essays, and poetry , 53 but it 
does illustrate why he has his detractors among both indigenous and non- 
indigenous commentators. 

Vizenor’s frequent references to post-structuralist/postmodem 
theorists such as Derrida and Roland Barthes, along with such unreadable 


Origins and the trickster 

passages as the one quoted above, help to identify him as a writer who is 
uninterested in the clear prose of Native stories. In fact, for him, according 
to Robert Bemer, “traditional tribal narratives are only the inevitably tragic 
remnants of dying cultures.” 54 

This is not to say that he is indifferent to the plight of Native people. 
Survival and hope are key themes of his trickster fiction and poems, such 
as “Anishinaabe Grandmothers,” and very often his main characters are 
Anishinaabe. But as a postmodernist, in the view of Osage critic Robert 
Warrior, Vizenor’s insistence on “the conclusions and praxes of French 
theory” is at the expense of indigenous needs. 55 Niigonwedom James 
Sinclair refers to the common designations of Vizenor as a cultural relativist 
engaged in “the process of undermining, subverting, and exploding almost 
all parts of Native identity.” 56 

On the other hand, Deborah Madsen applauds his “deconstructive 
hermeneutic discourse of survivance [as] a powerful strategy for subverting 
monologic U.S. colonial structures of oppression.” 57 Some academics defend 
Vizenor precisely as postmodern; other figures tend to see such archly 
Eurocentric and obscurantist theory as itself colonizing, or, at a minimum, 
far from liberatory. At the 1998 “Translating Native Cultures” conference at 
Yale, Santee/Yankton Sioux writer Elizabeth Cook-Lynn tore into academic 
“postindian” ideas as confused and ridiculous. 58 

Vizenor’s first and best-known novel, Bearheart, displays virtuoso 
comedic gifts, among other strengths. It mocks the repressive sociologists 
of the word at the Bioavaricious Word Hospital, who demand clarity (that 
enemy of the postmodern), in a chapter called “Word Wars in the Word 
Wards.” 59 More generally, and often in a trickster vein, he asserts that words 
heal by refusing to take themselves seriously, and that postmodern writing 
is not the place to look for meaning or truth. 

When asked for his definition of postmodemity, Vizenor answered 
pithily, “The notion that words are wild, of course.” 60 The problem, of 
course, is that words are not wild, despite their unequalled worship by 
postmodernists. For Vizenor the language game itself is the ultimate 

For this gifted storyteller, the free play of words undermines fixed 
meanings and “terminal creeds.” The latter Vizenorian term refers to any 
foundational orientation, which postmodernism categorically rejects (a 
foundational stratagem in itself.) In this vein, Vizenor castigates Scott 



Momaday as wanting to hold on to a past Indian golden age . 61 This is a 
racialist mistake, he avers. Native people are “postindian” now, with the 
city, not the reservation as the dominant lifeworld. In Braveheart, for 
example, Belladonna Darwin- Winter Catcher dies because she clings to “the 
perfections of the past” rather than “surviving in the present .” 62 

To begin with the working refusal of fixed meanings is, to some, 
a refusal of any grounding from which to address indigenous social and 
political concerns. Craig Womack wonders how any political movement 
of significance can exist without stable grounds . 63 Jennifer Nez Denetdale, 
in her Navajo meditation “Remembering Our Grandmothers,” feels that 
“ancestral memory and the form it takes as oral tradition provides one of 
the most powerful resources that Indigenous peoples have for asserting 
Indigenous status .” 64 

The overall postmodern techno-consumerist ethos cuts us off from 
origins, from goals, and also from the self. The decentered, fragmented 
subject has somehow been enthroned as both a reality and even as an ideal. 
And yet, do we not have need of a stable, committed sense of life? 

The intuition that human existence should not be as painful as 
most people find it lies at the heart of many perennial stories. Again and 
again, and seemingly everywhere, tales are told to explain why things are 
not as they ought to be. And there is always the option (a forced option, 
really) of accommodation to the general decline deeply felt by people 
of all backgrounds. Todd May pointed out the acceptance of the loss of 
community, the surrender involved in redefining it, in “The Community’s 
Absence in Lyotard, Nancy, and Lacoue-Labarthe .” 63 Marianna Torgovnick 
reminds us of the beacon of unity and connectedness that can be seen in 
primitive cultures, a light that has not been so extinguished as some would 
hope . 66 

A fundamental connection is certainly that of each person with 
nature. Native activist Janet McCloud: “Your heart is always beating and 
your breath is always moving in and out, isn’t it? The laws of nature are 
with you wherever you are.... Your body is nature. You have a river, a sun, 
and moon inside, too. Everything that’s out there is also in here .” 67 

The connection to beginnings is not separate from the connection to 
the regularity of the natural world, in the face of the Machine’s relentless 
project to sunder both. With its postmodern accomplice, the technosphere 
counsels all to submit. It is no coincidence that arch-postmodemist Donna 


Origins and the Trickster 

Haraway’s cyborg figure is designed explicitly to cut off interest in origins . 68 
A bitter irony is the name of CyberLife’s biological simulation engine: Origin. 

If we are to grasp our ominous condition, insights into how we got 
here are required. A grasp of the whole could hardly be more needed. While 
not in any way denying their particularity, indigenous voices and traditions 
should be heard, for survival itself. 

We must not succumb to blind obedience, being swept along by forces 
that have always arrayed themselves against Original people, and much 
else of value. The effort goes on and, as Benjamin soberly put it, “Only a 
redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past .” 69 I’ll cast my lot with 
this line from Celan: “There will be a return, a great one, far beyond the 
borders they draw for us .” 70 


1 Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak, translated by R.J. Hollingdale (New York: 
Cambridge University Press, 1982), Thesis 44, p. 46. 

2 F.W.J. von Schelling, The Abyss of Freedom/Ages of the World (Ann Arbor: 
University of Michigan Press, 1997 [1813]), p. 121. 

3 Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 30. 

4 James S. Hans, The Origin of the Gods (Albany: State University of New York 
Press, 1991), p. 1. 

5 Branden W. Joseph, “Dark Energy," in ArtForum, February 2011, p. 197. 

6 Theodor Adomo, Negative Dialectics (New York: Continuum, 2007), p. 323. 

7 Hilary Lawson, Closure: A Story of Everything (New York: Routledge, 2001), p. ix. 

8 Quoted in David Simpson, Situatedness, or Why We Keep Saying Where We're 
Coming From (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), p. 233. 

9 Adomo, Negative Dialectics, p. 191. 

10 Kevin Tucker, “When the Lights Go Out," on The Agrarian Curse [CD] 
(Milwaukee: FC Records, 2008). 

11 Louis Owens, Mixedblood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, Place (Norman: 
University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), pp 25-26. 

12 Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 
p. 123. 

13 Charles Long, Alpha: The Myths of Creation (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1963), 
p. 192. 


Future Primitive Revisited 

14 Sheila Moon, A Magic Dwells (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 
1970), p. 67. 

15 Ibid., p. 140. 

16 Emergence Myth According to the Hanelthnayhe or Upward-Reaching Rite, 
recorded by Berard Haile, O.F.M. (Santa Fe: Museum of Navajo Ceremonial 
Art, 1949), p. 129. 

17 Karl W. Luckert, The Navajo Hunter Tradition (Tucson: The University of 
Arizona Press, 1975), p. 188. 

18 Moon, op.cit, p. 161. Also J. Frank Dobie, Mody C. Boatwright and Harry H. 
Ransom, eds.. Coyote Wisdom (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 
1965), p. 72. 

19 Mathias Guenther, “The Trickster," in Bron Taylor et al, eds., Encyclopedia of 
Religion and Nature, vol. II (New York: Thoennes Continuum, 2005), p. 1663. 

20 Weston La Barre, The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion (New York: Dell 
Publishing, 1972), p. 216. 

21 E.E. Evans-Pritchard, The Zande Trickster (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 
1967), pp 32, 28. 

22 Oyekan Owomoyela, Yoruba Trickster Tales (Lincoln: University of Nebraska 
Press, 1997), p. xlll. 

23 Michael Jackson, Allegories of the Wilderness: Ethics and Ambiguity in 
Kuranko Narratives (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), p. 296. 

24 Jo-ann Archibald (Q’UM Q’UM XIIEM), Indigenous St orywork: Educating the 
Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit (Vancouver: University of British Columbia 
Press, 2008), p. 129. 

25 Zinta Konrad, Ewe Comic Heroes: Trickster Tales in Togo (New York: Garland 
Publishing, 1994), p. 19. 

26 Cited in Archibald, op.cit., p. 7. 

27 William Bright, A Coyote Reader (Berkeley: University of California Press, 
1993), p. 19. 

28 Deward E. Walker, Jr., Blood of the Monster: the Nez Perce Coyote Cycle 
(Worland, WY: High Plains Publishing, 1994), p. 224. 

29 Dell Hymes, Now I Know Only So Far (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 
2003), p. 279. 

30 Cited in Bright, op.cit., p. 21. 

31 Barbara Babcock-Abrahams, “A Tolerated Margin of Mess: A Trickster and his 
Tales Reconsidered," in Journal of the Folklore Institute 11 (1974), p. 147. 

32 Paul Radin, The Trickster (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1969), p. 133. 

33 Daniel G. Brinton, Myths of the New World (New York: Leypoldt & Holt, 
1868), p. 231. 

34 Robert D. Pelton, The Trickster in West Africa (Berkeley: University of 
California Press, 1980), p. 271. 

35 Cited in David Leeming and Jake Page, The Mythology of Native North 


Origins and the trickster 

America (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), pp 46, 48. 

36 Marc Linscott Rickett, "The North American Trickster,” History of Religions 5 
(1965), P.328. 

37 Bright, op.c it., p. 367. 

38 Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales (New York: 
Viking, 2007), pp 11-12. 

39 Babcock-Abrahams, op.cit., p. 178. 

40 Radin, op.cit., p. 154. 

41 John A. Grim, The Shaman: Patterns of Siberian and Ojibway Healing 

(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983), p. 85. 

42 Patricia Clark Smith, "Coyote Ortiz: Canis Latrans in the poetry of Simon 
Ortiz,” in Studies in American Indian Literature, Paula Gunn Allen, ed. (New 
York: Modem Language Association of America, 1983), p. 194. 

43 Barre Toelken, “Life and Death in Navajo Coyote Tales,” in Recovering 
the Word, Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat, eds. (Berkeley: University of 
California Press, 1987), pp 388-401. 

44 Christopher Nash, The Unravelling of the Postmodern Mind (Edinburgh: 
Edinburgh University Press, 2001), p. 124. 

45 Stefan Morawski, “My Troubles with Postmodernism,” in The Philosophical 
Forum XXVII no. 1 (Fall 1995), p. 78. 

46 Anne Doueihi, “Inhabiting the Space Between Discourse and Theory in 
Trickster Narratives,” in William J. Hynes and William B. Doty, eds., Mythical 
TricksterFigures (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993), p. 201. 

47 Cited in David Wood, The Step Back: Ethics and Politics after Deconstruction 
(Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), p. 223. 

48 Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 

p. 206. 

49 Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism 
(London: Verso, 1993), p. ix. 

50 Wood, op.cit., p. 185. 

51 Theodor Adomo, “On the Final Scene of Faust,” in Notes to Literature (New 
York: Columbia University Press, 1991), vol. 1, p. 120. 

52 Gerald Vizenor, “Shadow Survivance,” Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors 
of Survivance (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1994), p. 64. 

53 One of my favorites is “Manifest Manners: The Long Gaze of Christopher 
Columbus,” in American Indian Persistence and Resurgence, Karl Kroeber, ed. 
(Durham: Duke University Press, 1994), pp 224-236. 

54 Robert L. Bemer, Defining American Indian Literature (Lewiston, NY: The 
Edwin Mellen Press, 1999), p. 54. 

55 Cited in “A Sovereignty of Transmotion,” by Niigonwedom James Sinclair, in 
North American Indian Writing, Storytelling and Critique, Henry et al, eds. 
(East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2006), p. 132. 



56 Ibid., p. 129. 

57 Deborah L. Madsen, ed„ Native Authenticity: Transnational Perspectives 
on Native American Literary Studies (Albany: State University of New 
York Press, 2010), p. 14. Madsen goes on to stress Vizenor’s emphasis on 
irony, failing to see the irony of her book's title. Authenticity is a concept 
thoroughly decried by postmodernism as an illusion. Baudrillard, Deleuze 
and Guattari, and other such theorists, with whom Vizenor has consistently 
linked his approach, base their fundamental orientation on this very point. 
See Arnold Krupat, The Turn to the Native (Lincoln: University of Nebraska 
Press, 1996), p. 67. 

58 Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, “American Indian Studies: An Overview. Keynote 
address at the Native Studies Conference, Yale University, February 5, 1998,” 
in Wicazo Sa Review 14:2 (Autumn 1999), pp 14-24. 

59 Gerald Vizenor, Bearhear t: The Heirship Chronicles (Minneapolis: University 
of Minnesota Press, 1990). See Elizabeth Blair, “Text as Trickster: 

Postmodern Language Games in Gerald Vizenor’s Bearheart," MELUS 20, No. 
4 (Winter 1995), p. 88. 

60 Gerald Vizenor and A. Robert Lee, Postindian Conversations (Lincoln: 
University of Nebraska Press, 1999), p.21. 

61 Chadwick Allen, Indigenous Identity in American Indian and Maori 
Literature and Activist Texts (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), p. 191. 

62 Blair, op.cit., p. 79. 

63 Henry et al., op.cit., pp 227, 229. 

64 Jennifer Nez Denetdale, "Remembering our Grandmothers: Navajo Women 
and the Power of Oral Tradition,” in Julian E. Kunnie and Nomalungelo 

I. Goduka, eds.. Indigenous Peoples" Wisdom and Power (Burlington, VT: 
Ashgate, 2006), p. 82. In a 1999 interview, Vizenor lauded U.S. constitutional 
democracy as having best served the interests of Native Americans. 
Astounding, no irony here! Hartwig Isemhagen, Momaday, Vizenor, 
Armstrong: Conversations on American Indian Writing (Norman: University 
of Oklahoma Press, 1999), p. 94. 

65 Todd May, "The Community’s Absence in Lyotard, Nancy, and Lacone- 
Labarthe," in Philosophy Today 37 (Fall 1993), especially p. 280. 

66 Marianna Torgovnick, Gone Primitive (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 
1990) and Primitive Passions (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997) 

67 Janet McCloud, “On the Trail," in Jonathan White, Talking on the Water (San 
Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1994), p. 253. 

68 Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life (Princeton: Princeton 
University Press, 2001), p. 177. 

69 Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in Illuminations 
(New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), thesis III, p. 256. 

70 Paul Celan, "A Boat full of Brain,” in Last Poems, translated by Katherine 
Washburn and Margret Buillemin (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), 
p. 187. 


Origins and the trickster 




THE DOMESTICATING CONTROL LOGIC of civilization is the con- 
nective drive that joins origins to the present. A slightly different, if inti- 
mately related, factor or dimension of this connection is complexity. 

Mass society is inherently complex. The inseparable accompaniment 
of modernity is complexity, and its levels increase constantly in every 
society within a globalized context. In our insecure, violent world, the 
social and technological mediations of complexity dominate our lives at the 
expense of community. All relationships feel the pressure of impersonality, 
a hallmark of complexifying reality. In so many ways, present reality 
demonstrates that the dynamic of complexity is failing, not paying off. For 
example, complexity equals more than three hundred clinically identifiable 
psychiatric disorders, when once we lived in peace with and in our bodies. 

At the Feral Visions gathering in Arizona a few summers ago, we 
gathered at dusk to experience the sunsets: so vastly more magnificent and 
real than any computer or TV screen, and not “complicated” at all. Each 
one gloriously unique, its “complexity” fully present, altogether unlike 
social or technological complexity. It is the latter I address here, which is 
the opposite of diversity, richness, and the unique. Every fire we gaze into, 
like the sunsets and sunrises, returns us to ourselves and connects us to 
each other. Complexity led us out of ourselves, into overheated dwellings, 
overeating kitchens, loads of stuff for storage units , 1 every buffer from 
healthy lived existence. Why does it have uniformity and standardization 
as its results, along with the faux intimacy of (anti-) “social networks”? 

As distinct from “complexity” in nature, with its creative, myriad 
unfoldings, complex society is homogenous, the fruit of manufactured 
extension, the deadly obvious path of the built world. As IBM enjoins, “Let’s 
Build a Smarter Planet,” epitaph for the real one. 

Spengler referred to “the world-embracing spatial energy of modem 
technics,” a close parallel to complexity itself. He saw the dehumanization 
and its concluding, deathly closure; 2 the destruction of our perceptual, 
spiritual, and environmental habitats. This is the totalizing environment 
of complexity, which now is overtaking its masters in terms of the world 
economy as well as the global techno-grid. 

There are many still who counsel that we cannot disassemble the 
enormous, interwoven web: “The task we face now is not to reject or turn 
away from complexity but to learn to live with it creatively.” 3 Meanwhile 
some of these same complicitous voices admit that one of humanity’s oldest 
dreams is to reduce complexity to simplicity, and that the more complex the 
world becomes, the stronger the longing for simplicity. 4 

What is the real strength of social complexity anyway, compared to 
animate nature? “Computing capacity” may be a slightly unfortunate choice of 
words, but Greg Bear provides a healthy perspective: “The computing capacity 
of even bacterial DNA was enormous, compared to man-made electronics.” 5 

We forget that “things in themselves lack nothing, just as Africa did 
not lack whites before their arrival.” 6 We forget that while complexity makes 
some tasks easier, its overall effect is to increase work and make life more 
complicated and deprived. The postmodern mantra, “It’s all too complex,” is 
avoidance of the starkly obvious facts of complexity. The remark should be 
meant humbly, directed at the non-made world — its multi-dimensionality 
and flowing life. 

Meanwhile, a reconstitution of our very being is underway, and this 
is currently on display in most striking ways. J.H. van den Berg observed 
that “the measure of (repressed) unconsciousness of the individual is 
equal to the degree of derangement of the community.” 7 Bernard Stiegler 
takes this further with his discussion of the “decomposition of the social” 
in this hyper- industrial epoch in which the “imminent possibility of the 
total atomization of the we 8 has emerged. Stiegler’s meditation focuses 
on Richard Dum, who committed a massacre shooting in France in 2002. 
Psychically obliterated by complexity, Dum’s incapacity to be heard or even 
to speak led to the “derangement” prophesied in general terms by van den 
Berg 30 years earlier. Michel Serres gives us a summary judgment and 
warning: “We are masters of the earth, and we are constructing a world 
that is almost universally miserable and that is becoming the objective, 
founding given of our future.” 9 



The other “founding given” was that which obtained for so long outside 
the sickness of complex systems, before the systematic distancing from the 
world as such, in opposition to the lethal hubris of the notion that nature 
must be “perfected” (Marx, et al.) I refer, of course, to the companionship 
and anti-inequality ethos of band societies, their deep sense of sharing 
internally and sharing with a living environment . 10 

A primary question is: how was this world lost? How does the consent 
of the dominated to their domination develop? The answer may very well 
lie in gradually increasing complexity, from our earliest beginnings, in a 
primary way; with the nascent conquest of the unbuilt life-space and the 
associated objectification that it promoted. 

Art, for example, is widely considered an important monitor of social 
complexity. Margaret Conkey found Paleolithic art to be an attempted 
resolution of the stress arising from new complexity on the eve of 
domesticated society . 11 Art as a form of social control makes sense in the 
context of a need for reinforced social solidarity. Complexity apparently 
introduces strains at basic levels, early on in the progression of the symbolic. 
Jacques Lacan shed light on the connection with this succinct conclusion: 
“The symbolic world is the world of the machine .” 12 

The formalized discipline of ritual rehearses the move to repetitive, 
standardized production, the road to mechanization. Guy Swanson found 
that in due course the degree of abstraction and elevation of a society’s 
deities matches the complexity of that society’s social structure . 13 Each 
level leads to further complexity, further removes from uniqueness. 
Each part of the machine orientation is never an item complete in itself, 
but bears a quality of abstraction that gives it meaning only as a part 
of production logic. This abstraction is as necessary for commodity 
equivalence and exchange as it is for further heights of social coordination 
and integration. 

Archaeologist Joseph Tainter observed that as complexity increases, 
a society spends more resources on its maintenance, to the point of ever- 
diminishing returns . 14 The size of this self-preservation expenditure is very 
likely the single best index of social complexity. Thus it is easy to discern 
such societies” highest value. “Complexity of organization becomes more 
important than content,” according to linguist Edward Sapir . 15 At the same 
time the content of the human condition fragments, the fabric of social life 
is disrupted and tom. Political “solutions” that do not address complexity 



are irrelevant; the only kind of socialist “alternative” that has ever emerged 
in complex societies is centralized state socialism. 

Complexity’s central component is the division of labor, that which 
takes away the wholeness and integrity of an individual’s life. Production 
processes require, under the sign of efficiency, an always more elaborate 
specialization. Only when tools, and the rest of life, are direct and 
autonomous can complexity be disposed of. Life must literally be in one’s 
own hands, crafted and wielded outside control systems, in opposition to 
the impositions that complexity enforces across the board. Deleuze and 
Guattari referred to the “primordial unity of desire and production.” 16 
A superior anti-complexity formulation is embodied in the traditional 
lifeways of the Yupik people of Alaska, wherein there is no separation 
between daily activity and spirituality. Archaeologist C. Melvin Aikens 
reversed the proposition that agriculture was a fundamental precondition 
for the growth of sociopolitical complexity, arguing that complexity created 
the conditions leading to domestication. 17 Whether complexity is a cause or 
an effect, I believe it is useful to focus on complexity per se. 

Regarding the study of formal systems, such as those in physics, H.A. 
Simon concluded that complexity always leads to hierarchical structuring. 18 
We tend to look at it in general as manifest destiny or obviously fated, 
but it isn’t clear why complexity or development takes place at all. Henry 
Quastler has argued that adaptation, for example, may not be the last word 
in evolution, since it is unable to explain the complexifkation of living 
beings. 19 The observable reality is that such a tendency exists, and that, 
according to Ervin Laszlo, “once a new hierarchical level has emerged, 
systems on the new level tend to become progressively more complex.” 20 
We also know that complexity of one type tends to consort with other types 
of complexity, in the direction of convergence of systems. 

The managers and ideologues of social complexity have long 
dreamed of foundational certainty for their project of governing diversity 
and multiplicity. Kurt Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem (1931) proved, 
however, that no formal system can be both complete and consistent. 
He demonstrated that even elementary arithmetic is too complex to be 
totalized or completed on both of those grounds at once. In the universe 
at large there are no closed systems, thus the struggle for cognitive control 
over nature and society is an enterprise of ever escalating demands with no 
possibility of a final victory. 



But the overall regime of domestication strives toward maximum 
scope and power. These days such a judgment could hardly be missed. 
Simpler societies and systems are absorbed by more complex ones, usually 
not without a fight. The more complex setup has a more elaborate legal 
structure, but also tends toward disorder and instability. 

We should keep in mind the fact that the human intellect’s capacity 
for complexity management (instrumental reason) is limited. Nature is 
vastly more “complex” than the human brain. Similarly, physical things 
have not only more properties than they will ever overtly manifest, but 
more than they can ever possibly manifest. 21 

Complexity theory and chaos theory do not deny this, but neither 
do they reject the goal of mastery. They retain a distanced stance from 
which to make reality, however variegated, obey. Instead of the humility 
and freedom of immersion in the world, such theoretics in fact mirror the 
alienated norms of today’s “network culture.” The touted “interactivity” is, 
in both spheres, that of machines more than of free agents. 

Thanks to complexity, we have never been so plugged in to the world — 
or are we integrated into a global complex? The term “plugged in” gives it 
all away, in more ways than one. We are supposedly more “in touch.” Minus 
texture and context (and rarely with much content) how are we “touching” 
the world? Plugged in is the more apt term, and that reality also creates 
a different “world” to connect to. Our contact is ever more mediated and 
superficial, corresponding to an ever more complexified world. 

20 years ago I didn’t have a phone, though I had the use of one in the 
office of the housing coop where I lived. I could be reached rather easily; I 
had, for example, a pretty widespread correspondence. The communications 
I had were generally more in depth and consequential than on the Internet. 
What is handy and instantaneous is the flip side of a toxic culture that 
redefines “friends” and “community,” and mocks the “social” part of social 
networks. The epidemic of the great turn-off of autism and the steady rise 
of rampage shootings are only two of the more graphic signs of the terrible 
inner vacancy of complex “society.” 

Who doesn’t feel more centered or grounded, the less wired one is? 
Note the unintended irony expressed by Jean-Fram;ois Lyotard: “...the world 
is not evolving toward greater clarity and simplicity, but rather toward a 
new degree of complexity in which the individual may feel very lost but in 
which he can in fact become more free.” 22 



To be more adrift, lost, isolated is evidently the path toward freedom 
for some. It is more valid to see complexity as a disease or trauma, and 
there will be no healing until the ravages, the wounding are ended. As for 
freedom, mounting complexity brings ever greater control and individual 
insignificance. A central motif of Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason is that 
social institutions meant to advance freedom or liberation by overcoming 
the inertia of domination ossify and themselves join the weight of 
oppression. The lack of freedom is a function of complexity itself; advocates 
of democratization or self -management miss this point completely. 

The disease of complexity dis-ables us in so many ways. Our techno- 
fried brains are becoming “rewired,” according to many studies and 
projections. Of course, the term is but another symptom of the rapid shift 
that’s underway. Understanding drowns in a widening sea of information 
bytes, basic aptitudes are replaced by dependency on complex systems. And 
yet I’d say that Edward 0. Wilson strikes a true note: “The brain appears to 
have kept its old capacities, its channeled quickness. We stay alert and alive 
in the vanished forests of the world.” 23 

A useful and healthy point, but not enough. Approaching the 
slaughterhouse, some creatures smell blood and bellow. That’s not enough 
either, but we could start there. 



1 See Daniel Miller, The Comfort of Things (Malden, MA: Polity, 2008). Sad, 
postmodern work on commodities as “helpmates," etc. 

2 Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West I (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 
1926), p. 81. 

3 Mark C. Taylor, The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture 
(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001), p. 4. 

4 Ibid., pp. 137, 138. 

5 Greg Bear, Blood Music (New York: Arbor House, 1985), p. 22. 



6 Bruno Latour, ^reductions (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 
p. 193. 

7 J.H. van den Berg, Divided Existence and Complex Society (Pittsburgh: 
Duquesne University Press, 1974), p. 173. 

8 Bernard Stiegler, Acting Out, trans. David Barison, Daniel Ross, and Patrick 
Crogan (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 82. 

9 Michel Serres with Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and 
Time (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995), p. 177. 

10 A good overview is Peter M. Gardner, “Foragers" Pursuit of Individual 
Autonomy," Current Anthropology 32:5 (December 1991), pp. 543-572. 

11 Margaret W. Conkey, “Art and Social Geography," in Carmel Schrire, ed., Past 
and Present in Hunter Gatherer Studies (Orlando: Academic Press, 1984), p. 

12 Jacques Lacan, Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 
1954-55, trans. Sylvana Tomaselli (New York: Cambridge University Press, 
1988), p. 47. 

13 Guy Swanson, The Birth of the Gods (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan 
Press, 1960), pp. 82-86. 

14 Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies (New York: Cambridge 
University Press, 1988), p. 92. 

15 Edward Sapir, The Collected Works of Edward Sapir III, eds. Regna Darnell 
and Judith T. Irvine (New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1999), p. 30. 

16 Ann Fienup-Riordan, Yuunaqpiallerput: The Way We Genuinely Live (Seattle: 
University of Washington Press, 2007), e.g. p. 24. 

17 C. Melvin Aikens, “The Last 10,000 Years in Japan and Eastern North 
America: Parallels in Environment, Economic Adaptation, Growth of Social 
Complexity, and the Adoption of Agriculture," Sent i Ethnological Studies 9 
(1981), especially p. 262. 

18 H. A. Simon, “The Architecture of Complexity," Proceedings of the American 
Philosophical Society 106, pp. 467-482. 

19 Heinz von Foerster, Margaret Mead, and Hans Lukas Tenber, eds., 
Cybernetics: Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and 
Social Systems [Transactions of the Ninth Conference] (New York: Josiah 
Macy, Jr. Foundation, 1955), especially pp. 173, 178-179. 

20 Ervin Laszlo, The Grand Synthesis (Boston: Shambhala, 1987), p. 25. 

21 Nicolas Rescher, Complexity: A Philosophical Overview (New Brunswick, NJ: 
Transaction Publishers, 1998), p. 38. 

22 Quoted in Scott Sullivan, "A Maze of Lost Illusions," Newsweek, April 22, 
1985, p. 80. 

23 Edward 0. Wilson, Biophilia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 
1984), p. 101. 






a time of proliferating challenges to authority across the board. We tend to 
think of the Middle Ages as a time when most people were pious and ac- 
cepting of their lot, but the many active crises of the late medieval period 
strongly belie this image. Most striking were the frequency and violence 
of uprisings, mostly by peasants. Even more potent were upheavals that 
combined the demands of the materially oppressed with the radically mil- 
lenarian views of heretical movements. 

Increasingly during this period, every disturbance was seized upon 
as an opportunity for wider rebellion. Because of the central authority 
wielded by the Church, it is not stretching matters a lot to infer that all that 
all subversive social and political ideas were necessarily also theological 
heresies. Growing intrusiveness by the State (e.g. heavy taxation and other 
assaults on local autonomy), plus the oppressive weight of the Church 
in daily life, provided a situation of unavoidable collision with radical 
movements. The power of both Church and State was on the line with 
mounting urgency. 

Feudalism as a system, identical with society itself, was under 
attack, even as ecclesiastical strength declined. Revolts and radical heresies 

managed to persevere in the allegedly closed society of the late Middle 
Ages, because in fact it was no longer so effectively closed. There was an 
inner hollowness to ruling power that was exposed time and time again. 
Concerning the Church’s actual power, Raoul Vaneigem went so far as to 
assert that the Middle Ages were no more Christian than the late Eastern 
Bloc was communist. As the chasm widened between rich and poor, civil 
authority resorted to very harsh punishments. Sound familiar? For late 
modernity as well, no part of the integrated whole is completely integrated... 
or pacified. 

The three great peasant risings of the fourteenth century involved the 
“blue nails” of maritime Flanders (1323-1328), the French jacquerie (1358), 
andthe massive English revolt of 1381. In 1378, day laborers raised a major 
urban challenge in Florence. And scores of other insurrections took place, 
shaking the reigning structures, often borne forward by apocalyptic desires. 
Either explicitly or just below the surface, grew chiliastic expectations 
of a return to the innocence, freedom and immediacy of society prior to 
exchange and private property. Many were inspired by some version of a 
lost anarcho-communal Golden Age. 

Of course, specific grievances triggered upheavals according to time 
and place. Privations as a result of the Hundred Years War with England 
had much to do with fourteenth century outbursts in France, for example. 
More generally, a deep and growing restlessness was noted, an anxiety in 
various countries related to a decisive shift in time consciousness. 

In the early medieval period, there were only three “hours” based on the 
daily round of the monastery. But the modem 24-hour day made its arrival: 
clocks were common after 1300, and standardized, homogeneous time was 
in general use beginning around 1330 in Germany and 1370 in England. This 
change had a tremendous effect. Heretofore, time took its meaning from the 
substance of life; precise clock time measured life as an external, abstract 
presence. A much more ordered, disciplined work life was a principal result, 
and a source of deep dissatisfaction. Like money, and private property itself, 
the clock helped those in authority enforce a significantly more quantified 
and regulated existence. It is no surprise that those who pursued perfected 
control were given to hymns of praise to dominant clock time — much as 
today’s techno-world boosters laud the Machine. 

We should also note that resistance could always be found making 
itself known against official mores and culture. In fact, an extensive sector 


Future Primitive Revisited 

of outsiders, present throughout the medieval period, swelled in size by 
the fourteenth century. They included the 11th and 12th century “forest 
people,” and the thirteenth-century renegade Helmrecht, who rebelled 
against peasant life. The Goliards were anti-clerical wanderers who begged 
and sang their way from town to town, suspected of heresy and subversion. 
Francois Villon belonged to this tradition, and to the heritage of refractory 
Parisian students before and since. The famed poet was also a law-breaker 
and vagabond, and narrowly escaped the hangman’s noose. 

The Feast of Fools was a widespread, long-running ensemble of 
various kinds of performances, unmercifully mocking the Church and its 
authorities. Making its first appearance in 12th century France, the Feast 
included, characteristically, the Witches” Sabbath or Black Mass, ridiculing 
both clergy and liturgy in very pointed nocturnal celebrations. The texts 
that Carl Orff set to music in his Carmina Burana belong to this tradition; 
these Goliard lyrics are a decidedly non-Christian musical ode to drinking, 
sensual love, and the vagaries of fortune. 

Violent antagonisms were on the rise in the 1200s, with the number 
of conflicts more and more manifest, especially in the second half of the 
century. The people of Piacenza and Florence revolted in 1250 because of 
the high cost of food and the activity of speculators. Disturbances took 
place in Parma in 1255, Bologna in 1256, Milan in 1258, Siena in 1262, and 
again in Florence in 1266. To the north, an agitation in favor of equal rights 
for the poor broke out in the region of Liege in 1250, leading to violence 
there in 1254. Flemish textile workers also revolted in Ypres, Bruges, and 
Douai in 1280. Before the century was out, the merchant-industrialists of 
Flanders were reduced to seeking French aid to suppress the workers. This 
move led to defeat for King Philip and the French army, for it precipitated a 
powerful alliance between textile laborers and artisans. At Coutrai in 1302, 
the united urban proletariat wiped out Philip’s forces. 

Also in Flanders, the first large-scale medieval revolt raged from 
1323 to 1328; it was the most prolonged and intense of the many peasant 
revolts of the fourteenth century. Peasants waged what amounted to a war 
of extermination against landlords, capitalists and clergy; they were often 
joined by textile workers, who took up arms once again. The watchword 
of this rising was “war against the rich and the priests.” Another civil war 
in 1348-49 ended when the French army massacred weavers in Bruges, 
Ghent, and Ypres; but the weavers rose again in 1359 and held out against 


Revolt and Heresy in the Late middle Ages 

all opposition for two years. Assassinations of magistrates and desecration 
of churches were among the features of such open warfare. And one could 
compile a very long list of eruptions in several countries, such as those of 
Calais in 1298 and Saint Malo and Genoa in 1306, when the mutinies of 
sailors against shipowners spread to involve many others. The tally only 
multiplied as the fourteenth century progressed. 

Both heresies and millennial outbursts long pre-dated the last two 
centuries of the Middle Ages. But earlier heresies, such as the Cathars and 
Bogomils, had been predominantly dualistic and neo-Manichean: Gnostic, 
repressive and anti-nature in character. Typical of a newer anti-Church 
outlook was the Free Spirit, a heretical movement that emerged in the early 
fourteenth century, honoring freedom, sensuality, and pantheistic belief in 
individual divinity as a natural state. Free Spirit adherents were influenced 
by mystics such as Joachim of Fiore and Meister Eckhart, and by the joy 
and innocence of Francis of Assisi. The Beguines and Beghards (partner 
organizations of women and men) were even closer to the Free Spirit, with 
their basis of simplicity and poverty. 

The issue of poverty is noteworthy and curiously modem. Upholding 
poverty as a cardinal virtue sufficed for the Church to continually suspect 
the Beghards and Beguines of heresy, and quite often to persecute them. 
Then as now, the command to shop was implicit and its refusal was seen as 
a source of subversion. 

In 1311, Pope Clement V, disturbed by the success of the movement 
of the Free Spirit, denounced its “abominable kind of life, which they call 
freedom of the spirit, which means the freedom to do anything they like.” In 
Paris Margaret of Porete, author of The Mirror of Simple Souls, was burned 
at the stake in the same year. She was a Beguine who proposed that the 
world might be rehabilitated to its state before the Fall by “giving nature 
what it demands.” It was in fact the major role of women that heightened 
the Church’s active persecution of such voices, and the Free Spirit insistence 
on unlicensed sexuality is understood to have been related to a strong 
presence of women in similar groupings. 

The anti-authoritarian and erotic millenarianism of the Free Spirit 
partook of an even wider wave of apocalyptic desire for the restoration 
of a lost Golden Age. Its sense of primal sinlessness and natural liberty 
bespoke its partisans” project of total emancipation in the present. They 
were opposed to private property, not in order to replace it with a world of 



communist cooperative labor, but with freedom from toil. Adherents fought 
for this general social myth; a bloody battle in 1307 near Milan in which 
some 400 Free Spirit brethren were killed was not the first waged by such 
radical heretics. Visionary religious utopianism was beginning to form a 
backdrop for social struggles across Europe. 

One of the best-known fourteenth-century revolts was the 1357-58 
outburst of peasant energy in northern France known as the Jacquerie, for 
the common peasant name Jacques. Jacques has denoted a poor, rebellious 
peasant — and a Jacquerie a peasant uprising — ever since. Including rural 
artisans and craftsmen, and typical of the widespread willingness to rise up 
against oppression, the Jacquerie was inspired by heretical sects of several 
countries. “Let’s let anything go and all be masters” was one of its rallying 
cries. An alliance formed between peasants and the people of Paris, which 
was especially alarming to those within the power structure. The threat 
was so grave that although England was then at war with France, help was 
rushed across the Channel to suppress this great explosion. 

Florence in 1378 witnessed the “Tumult of the Ciompi,” following 
other significant disturbances such as those in Siena in 1368 and 1371. The 
Ciompi (wool carders) failed to make common cause with the peasantry, but 
their revolt succeeded for a few months. These purely urban rebels liberated 
prisoners and armed themselves, but succumbed to internal divisions and 
to the illusion that governance would work to their advantage. 

What happened in Florence was the opening round of a four-year 
tempest that raged across a large part of Europe until early 1382. In 1380, 
for example, Parisians known as maillotins (from the hammers and mallets 
they carried) attacked government buildings, burning records, killing tax 
collectors, and opening the jails. Similar risings took place in Rouen and 
other French cities and in Flanders, also precipitated by tax increases. 
From the Tuchin movement throughout southern France (Tuchins were 
“outlaws” — as designated by their enemies), to revolts in the German city of 
Liibeck and Novgorod in Russia, the decade opened with a rising tempo of 
serious contestations in Europe. 

Perhaps the largest and best known was the Peasants” Revolt of 
spring and summer 1381 in large parts of England. Its heartlands were Kent 
and Essex, where imposed labor (the corvee) had actually been less onerous 
than in other counties; the revolt is associated with figures such as Wat 
Tyler and John Ball. City workers joined peasants to quickly capture and 


Revolt and Heresy in the Late middle Ages 

occupy London. Possibly 30,000 took part in the general and well-planned 
rising. Anti-clerical in spirit, the revolt nonetheless included members of 
the impoverished and radicalized lower clergy, known as Lollards. For a 
time it looked as though the monarchy would be swept away on a torrent of 
anger. But with the capital completely in their hands, the leaders foolishly 
trusted the king, who promised to act on their demands. This proved fatal, 
and the revolt was lost within months of its inception. 

But during the spring and summer something marvelous had been 
pursued with great vigor. Lollard preacher John Ball gave voice to a typical 
sentiment: “Good folk, things cannot go well in England nor ever shall until 
all things are in common and there is neither villein nor noble, but all of us 
are of one condition.” The equality of all and the original absence of social 
classes fired the insurgent consciousness, the goal of a primal state where no 
one is above another. Norman Cohn connected it to the “mystical anarchism 
of the Free Spirit.” Of course it is more than mystical when put into practice. 

This was not the end of peasant resistance in England. Between 
1381 and 1405 there would be five regional revolts, especially in Kent, 
Cheshire, and Yorkshire. In France the vineyard workers of Auxerre gave the 
authorities disquieting memories of the Jacquerie and the Maillotins with 
the disturbances they led there in 1393. Rebellion in Catalonia brought the 
burning of harvests and landlords” dwellings in 1410; riots erupted in Paris 
in 1413 and 1418. A monk at St. Denis spoke to the nature and extent 
of the late fourteenth century upheavals and their aftermath: “Nearly 
all the people of France had rebelled and were agitated with great fury 
and, according to general rumor, they were excited by messengers from 
the Flemish, who were themselves worked upon by the plague of a similar 
rebellion, stimulated by the example of the English.” 

The radical wave near the end of the Middle Ages reached its apogee 
with the great Taborite insurrection of Bohemia, the longest-lasting and 
most militant example of millenarianism in action. What began as a 
University of Prague reform program associated with Jan Hus succumbed 
to an immensely strong primal, Paradise-now undertow. Its passion spread 
like wildfire, similar to the contagious interplay described by the monk of 
St. Denis. Tabor was an actual society between 1420 and the mid-1430s, a 
movement that repeatedly destroyed large forces intent on destroying it. 
Women fought side-by-side with men — extraordinary for any age, much 
less the medieval epoch. 



The most radical Taborite elements included the Pickhards (a version 
of “Beghard”) and especially the Adamites, fighting for a return to the world 
before the Fall from grace — zealots who went naked at all times. Part of 
their philosophy prescribed that “in this time no king shall reign nor any 
lord rule on earth, there shall be no serfdom, all dues and taxes shall cease, 
nor shall any man force another to do anything, because all shall be equal, 
brothers and sisters.” 

Based on handicrafts, the key strongholds of Tabor were invincible 
for almost 15 years. On August 14, 1431, the people’s army met a vast pan- 
European army of knights and others at the battle of Tauss. These legions 
of feudal authority were decimated and routed there by the Taborites and 
their highly disciplined guerrilla tactics, but they finally succeeded in 1434 
at Lipian, in Bohemia. 

For some decades resistance flowered and overcame Church and State 
in open battle, repeatedly if not definitively. Equipped with some version of 
the visionary, we too may embody resistance to the domesticated world. 



Michael Barkun, Disaster and the Millennium (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974) 

Max Beer, Social Struggles in the Middle Ages (London: Leonard Parsons, 1924) 

Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (Fairlawn, NJ: Essential Books, 1957) 

Alfred W. Crosby, The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250- 
1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) 

Guy Fourquin, The Anatomy of Popular Rebellion in the Middle Ages (Amsterdam: North- 
Holland Publishing Co., 1978) 

John Jolliffe, editor and translator, Froissart's Chronicles [Jean Froissart, 1337-1410] 
(London: Harville Press, 1967) 

Michael Jones, editor. The New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume VI c. 1300-c. 141 5 
(Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995) 

John Howard Lawson, The Hidden Heritage (New York: Citadel Press, 1950) 

Gordon Leff, Heresy in the Later Middle Ages (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 

Robert E. Lerner, The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages (Berkeley: 
University of California Press, 1972) 


Revolt and Heresy in the Late middle Ages 

Michel Mollat, The Poor in the Middle Ages (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986) 

Michel Mollat and Philippe Wolfe, The Popular Revolutions of the Late Middle Ages 
(London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1973) 

Herman Pleij, Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life (New York: 
Columbia University Press, 2001) 

Michael J. St. Clair, Millenarian Movements in Historical Context (New York: Garland 
Publishing, 1992) 

Raoul Vaneigem, The Movement of the Free Spirit (New York: Zone Books, 1994) 

Daniel Waley, Later Medieval Europe (London: Longmans, 1964) 





HOW HAVE WE WINNOWED DOWN the heavens and the earth, 
the great blaze of existence, to machine systems and subjugation? Staring 
at electronic screens during more and more of our lives; shrinking, not ex- 
panding our contact with the realness of life, shriveling the soul. Why not be 
always interrupted by Twitter and iPhone? There’s nothing much left here. 

The spirit bleeds from wounds we try not to know about. The greatest 
secrets are those spread out before us, and the actual is what could grow 
at our feet. “No culture ever achieved the degree of asceticism that our so- 
called consumer society, our banquet, imposes on us today, wrote Michel 
Serres . 1 Thomas Merton concluded, “There is no misery to compare with 
that which exists where technology has been a total success .” 2 

We see it all happening, through the window of a tear, in a time of 
confusion and displacement, fears and anxieties, ever more total crises. 
Kierkegaard found in melancholy the opening to understanding modem 
life. The all-consuming technoculture, approaching the erasure of the 
biological-digital demarcation, provides no meaning except that it means 
we are losing our sense of reality. The subject withers and the very idea of 
nature is rewritten in order to discard what survives. “The individual who 
lives in the technical milieu knows very well that there is nothing spiritual 
anywhere,” according to Jacques Ellul . 3 

Will they find the black box of our drowned lives and wonder why? 
Or will we discover that “we are all walking a tightrope that is stretched 
taut, about two inches off the ground,” as Jeff Benjamin has it, and heed his 
advice to step off ? 4 


But technology, civilization’s incarnation, is also the organizing 
principle of our lives: the always advancing, never retreating division of 
labor, moving away from tools and toward systems. And as “radically 
neutral,” in Carl Schmitt’s term, technology has always gotten away with 
everything. Technology still hopes to maintain a faith that it can solve the 
problems it created in the first place. While we experience a deepening ruin 
everywhere, IBM proclaims, insanely, “Let’s Build a Smarter Planet.” 

The dynamic project of technology is the defining and most 
characteristic mark of modernity. Technology has no goal or value outside 
itself but is, despite its basic nihilism, the bottom line of our history. Its 
progressive victory over both nature and history, endorsed by both Left and 
Right, towers over other developments. We have traded loss of contact with 
the earth and each other for the pursuit of total control. 

During the two million years before civilization, tools were a 
dependably stable solution to life’s needs. Domestication, the control dynamic 
of civilization, launched the never-ending progression of technology. Before 
domestication, we lived in a continuum of present moments. Now we 
inhabit a “present” that looks away from or denies the present. And denies 
the real past and the now unmistakable future. Globalization reigns, the 
full “actualization of technology, its concrete universal.” 5 The global culture 
that abhors and flattens the world. 

Jerry Mander summed it up: “The web of interactions among the 
machines becomes more complex and more invisible, while the total 
effect is more powerful and pervasive. We become ever more enclosed and 
ever less aware of that fact. Our environment is so much a product of our 
invention that it becomes a single worldwide machine.” 6 

The place of understanding, however, is a strangely limited terrain. 
Internet culture in general is the intended master narrative for our lives, 
and some see a framework of salvation there. Virtual Life programmer 
Steve Grand, for example, finds in software the restoration of the spiritual 
domain. 7 Or the very similar loopy claims of Ignacio L. Gotz: namely, that 
community life is “emerging in cyberspace” and that ‘Through the power 
of computation, the universal spirit of divine creativity” is being extended. 8 

By Buckminster Fuller’s bizarre logic, it is technology’s record of failure 
that compels us to complete and perfect the technological project — and 
thereby aim at utopia. 9 Speaking of which, Frederic Jameson turned so often 
to the subject of utopia only to offer, in his Valences of the Dialectic (2010), 



a tepid progressive stance in explicit league with the liberals to strengthen 
both technology and the state. In a typically Marxist move, Mike Davis 
concludes his City of Quartz (1990) bemoaning the loss of Los Angeles steel 
plants. Gaia visionary James Lovelock has turned to nuclear power as the 
planet’s last hope. Wendell Berry stresses the idea that the ecological crisis is 
about character, is not a political or social crisis. Deep Ecology adherents are 
likewise oblivious to the realities of such key factors as industrialism and 
technological rationality; some are fine with genetic engineering. 

But the across-the-board failure of well-known “critical” voices, 
slightly sampled above, is much less interesting to me than that of a different 
category of thinkers. I mean those who have contributed important, in- 
depth critiques, only to take it all back with concluding comments that 
contradict or mock the critiques themselves. This is an almost universal 
phenomenon, which of course reinforces the prevailing denial of reality 
instead of challenging it. We are free to leant from the insightful content 
and ignore the so-often bizarrely inconsistent, cop-out endings, needless to 
say, but we need to do the whole job and not surrender to the Machine in 
our conclusions. 

Martin Heidegger is a prime example of profound understanding and 
obvious failure to remain true to it. He saw that all has become grist for 
technology’s totalizing mill, its mere “standing reserve,” as he famously put 
it. The enormity of this global movement transforms everything, signifying 
definitive environmental destruction, the triumph of mass industrial 
culture, and the end of philosophy. The imposition of technology and its 
passion for control closes thought off from other ways of thinking. 

The inescapably necessary response to this reality, one would 
logically expect, must lie in resisting it, so as to bring its ghastly reign to an 
end. But Heidegger counsels nothing of the kind, opting instead for a non- 
sequitur passivity in which simply understanding the techno-imperialism 
is key. 10 Changing one’s perspective in the absence of consequences of 
course changes nothing, despite Heidegger’s claim that it could provide a 
“free relationship” to technology. 

The fact that almost no one remarks on such an abject surrender or 
betrayal of all thatprecedes it must be attributable to the universality of this 
pattern. Friedrich Georg Juenger’s The Failure of Technology emphatically 
underlines, in a much more down-to-earth style, Heidegger’s dire picture 
of the march of technology. Its progress, he writes, “is a self-impelled 


Denying the Unavoidable 

and irreversible process, which, left to itself, must end in a completely 
regimented and mechanized society that lives in a state of exhaustion, 
both of natural and human reserves.” 11 He goes on to warn that “Nothing is 
further from my mind than the romantic rejection of technology.” 12 

Enlarging the focus somewhat, we encounter valuable analyses of 
domestication and civilization, which produce the transition from tools 
to systems of technology. Paul Shepard provided one of the very most 
trenchant explications of the fateful move away from healthy, free and 
egalitarian hunter-gatherer life to its opposite: domesticated existence. He 
also noted that this shift to what he called the “barnyard” leads directly 
to present-day technologies like genetic engineering and nanotechnology; 
such outcomes are implicitly announced in the move to domesticate. In 
The Tender Carnivore and similar works, Shepard upheld the virtues of our 
hunter-gatherer ancestors: “we remain creatures of the older time...and in 
this lies our hope for tomorrow.” 13 But he hastened to add, “I do not mean by 
backtracking through the barnyard.” True to the observed pattern, he takes 
back the very heart of what he had given us. Absurdly, he concludes that 
we have to go forward with domestication in order to bring the “heart of the 
hunter-gatherer” to fruition. 14 

Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael was a 1990s sensation, featuring a Socratic 
dialogue with a gorilla who seeks to save the world. The popular novel 
portrays hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists as Leavers and Takers, the 
latter as the non-sustainable civilizers whose project is the problem, not 
the solution. But — of course — we should not leave civilization or destroy its 
technological basis; we should just look at it differently. 

Sherry Turkle, author and scholar at M.I.T., focuses on both psychology 
and high-tech culture. The latter is “where people and machines are in a 
new relation to each other [and] indeed can be mistaken for each other.” 15 
On October 17, 2007 I attended a public lecture by Turkle at the University 
of Oregon. Her main point, a very moving one, was the terrible effect that 
the pervasive online ethos has on the young, with special reference to her 
teenage daughter. Turkle spoke of how an all-absorbing Internet culture 
undermines and deforms the cognitive and emotional makeup of kids. The 
rapt audience heard how her daughter cannot, in important respects, grasp 
the difference between machines and living beings. At the very end of her 
talk she said, with something of a smile, “Oh well, that’s modem life.” (I 
think those were her exact words, or very close.) First with a question, I 


Future Primitive Revisited 

said, in so many words, “Surely you cannot just leave it at that, after your 
very devastating account of what technology is doing." Her reaction was a 
complete non-response, as if my point was not worth a reply. One or two 
others raised a similar point, based, I think, on the disconnect between 
her remarks and the utter surrender of her finale. How is the human spirit 
expected to live with such moral and intellectual bankruptcy? 

Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds by Zygmunt Bauman is 
an account rather like the gist of Turkle’s talk. I felt the sadness of the 
book’s description of rampant desociation, how we are always somewhere 
else, how in the electronic network world “getting in touch is no obstacle 
to staying apart.” 16 And yet, “it would be foolish and irresponsible to blame 
electronic gadgets for the slow yet consistent recession of personal, direct, 
face-to-face, multi-faceted and multipurpose, continuous proximity.” 17 So 
close to irony and yet so far. Tom Darby, quoted above, has displayed a 
deep understanding of how negative the all-pervasive techno-juggemaut 
is. Lacking the courage of his apparent convictions, however, he closes the 
door to transformation: “We do know this: at least for this age, and for the 
life of the West, technology is here to stay....” 18 It is here to stay insofar as 
we permit it to stay. 

Jared Diamond is probably the best-known diagnostician of 
civilizations. In sum, they all fail, because of domestication, a.k.a. 
agriculture. 99.6 percent of human history was free of domestication, but 
its arrival about 10,000 years ago constituted “the worst mistake in the 
history of the human race.” 19 Moving away from this insight, Diamond’s 
Collapse is a grave disappointment. Having demonstrated the reason for 
civilization’s downfall, in the last third of the book Diamond makes the 
ridiculous general assertion, based on nothing, that somehow things will all 
turn out fine. It isn’t that there weren’t weaknesses in Diamond’s argument 
prior to Collapse, but in that work he looks to some completely unspecified 
“long-term” thinking to solve the problem of civilization. Embarrassing, 
in the way of A1 Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth film, when once again, the 
conclusion flies in the face of all that preceded it. The enormity of the 
eco-crisis, forcefully presented, followed by the change-your-lightbulbs 
“solution.” Ridiculous, even to many liberals. 

David Abram is a leading environmental philosopher, and his The 
Spell of the Sensuous is a key text. He posits the sensuous world as a victim 
of the alphabetic, technologically mediated world and its voracious progress 


Denying the Unavoidable 

in reducing our senses. Lyrical and poignant, Abram’s book uncovers the 
insidious march of technology, the terrible damage it wreaks in severing our 
connection to our earth. Only to take it all back by proposing “a multiplicity 
of technologically sophisticated” cultural approaches as the solution to the 
unerringly destructive techno-trajectory he describes so persuasively. 20 Is 
such a jarring reversal the price of getting published? 

Andy Fisher’s Radical Ecopsychology stresses technology’s disdain for 
life, and its relentless immiseration of the natural world. With, you guessed 
it, this proviso: “I want to be very clear that such counterpractice [which 
in daily life may somehow counter ‘the pattern of technology’] does not 
involve getting rid of technology....” 21 Small wonder that Abram wrote the 
foreword to Fisher’s book. 

There is a constant stream of lesser books that follow this almost 
invariant pattern. Pressing, ecocidal reality is no bar to the familiar litany 
of useful contents and denial conclusions. In The Most Powerful Idea in the 
World (2010), a workmanlike history of industrial technology, William Rosen 
admits that global overheating is a function of aggregate industrialism. Every 
measure of industrialization is, step by step, the measure of the greenhouse 
gas effect that is warming the planet. But the answer is more technology, 
not less; no way to put the genie back in the bottle. All technology and its 
expansion of course rely on a concomitant expansion of that without which 
it would not exist — industrialism. Without mining, smelting, warehouses, 
assembly lines, there is no technology. Shiny, clean green technology exists 
nowhere in reality. 

There is something totalitarian about this pattern, the hammering 
against a still-prevailing denial, only to end in conformity, again and again. 

Giorgio Agamben has commented on the massive, historic loss of 
direct experience and imagination that techno-modemity has wrought. 22 
Loneliness, the sense of dependency and de-skilling, the simple boredom 
and emptiness of a world of devices where the only “diversity” is flattened 
and machine-like. If there ever was a “technological sublime” or somehow 
a sense of transcendence, technology’s failure to deliver — despite the fever 
pitch of marketing new lures — could scarcely be more manifest. The sad 
present, however, in its impoverished state, has only more and more of this 
desert on offer, connecting nowhere to nowhere. 

The reform of technology’s world? When has it ever happened? 
Specialization and domestication never go backward. 



But we can have “social network” “friends" as we have fewer actual 
friends, visit them less often, tend as never before to live alone. In our 
homelessness we can have a “home page." Community reduced to what 
erases and mocks it. The medium itself encourages bad style, bad manners, 
and a fast-food version of content. Online and feeling worse, weaker 
afterward, like watching TV. Japan has perhaps the most superficial, mega- 
consumerist technotopia and what Henry Hitchings referred to as “the 
creepy infantilism that percolates through most of [its] popular culture .” 23 

Once we felt alive, in the natural world, part of a larger whole. In 
an individualistic (mass) society such as the U.S., the individual is quite 
anonymous. Strangely enough, such a condition does not exist in indigenous, 
“group"-oriented societies, where the individual is never anonymous. 

A feeling of meaninglessness began to arise as the Industrial 
Revolution began. We’ve come all the way to the age of Virtual Reality, 
megachurches, and life coaches, a measure of how deep the disembodiment 
and disempowerment have become. The self and its community are 
emptied of substance and therefore meaning, a global phenomenon. In 
India, the Bhagavad Gita and yoga sutras are, commonly, annotated texts 
for heightened production and consumption. 

Civilization is this draining servitude to a Machine that is now 
completely global. Aztecs feared that the universe would come to a stop 
if they did not sacrifice pulsing hearts to feed their own pulsing social 
dynamics. As the current, unitary civilization desecrates and destroys 
the very support systems that make life possible, it is easy to see the 
dependence of all parts on the whole, and their functional equivalence. 
In Don DeLillo’s novel Underworld, the character Matt wonders, “How can 
you tell the difference between orange juice and agent orange if the same 
massive system connects them ?” 24 

But as Native American philosopher Linda Hogan reminds us, “The 
world is there in its entirety, not in segments .” 25 When we connect with 
nature, it happens directly and specifically. Not ideologically, but in practice, 
bodily, in a way that can draw on practices that do not massify or erase 
connection with the earth. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas offers wonderful 
observations on the digging stick, which remains in use in some places. She 
points out its availability, versatility (“It can balance a load, extend your 
reach, or become a lever,” a tool to knock nuts from a tree or discourage a 
predator. It weighs less, is easier to carry, and costs nothing" in contrast to 


Denying the Unavoidable 

a shovel. The digging stick also requires less energy and preserves contact 
with what is being dug. 26 

A shovel requires shoes, which brings us to Christopher McDougall’s 
Born to Hun (2010). This entertaining work reveals that the more 
technologically advanced runners” shoes are, the more chronic are injuries 
of the foot, leg, hip, etc. McDougall contrasts the health of barefoot long- 
distance runners in mountainous Mexico, the peaceful, horticultural 
Tarahumara; perhaps the best in the world, for whom running a hundred 
miles is a commonplace. Again, the unmediated is best. 

Seemingly inexorable and limitless, does the ever-expanding techno- 
ethos really offer more freedom or individuality, and less work? The opposite 
is the case, a social existence that is limited, generic, and hollow, with an 
almost total dependence on experts, and a lived environment as thin and 
non-diverse as that of most of the biosphere. We approach our merger with 
machines, possibly the greatest technological watershed in human history. 
Modernity’s goal of total mastery turns out instead to be more and more 
industrial disasters. The control logic of techno-Progress comes to mean 
that the Machine is out of control. Who is left who believes in redemption 
through technology, despite the fact that we are still held hostage to it? 

Meanwhile we are losing what were thought to be basic human 
aptitudes. GPS devices supplant map-reading skills and even a sense of 
direction. There is a “baby-cry” app for iPhones that translates a baby’s cries 
into one of five emotional states, including hunger and fatigue. 27 We walked 
on this Earth for millions of years knowing where we were, and knowing the 
meaning of an infant’s cry. Without machines, how astounding! Heidegger 
saw the current era as “no longer able to experience its own destitution,” a 
most apt observation. 28 

Some manage to speak of harmony, the wish for a “balance” with 
technology. The need, for example, for technology to be more people-oriented 
and/or respectful of nature. As if it is so already but just needs to be more so. 
Gandhi, by the way, who stressed such traits as simplicity and self-reliance, on 
occasion said that industry is fine so long as it respects these traits. But of course 
the point is that it does not respect them. One might as well say that cancer 
is OK so long as it respects the body, behaves harmoniously, in a “balanced” 
way. Another version of this wishful thinking is seeing the technoculture as 
acceptable insofar as we don’t worship it. But it makes no difference whether 
we “worship” it or not; its power and effects move forward all the same. 


Future Primitive Revisited 

The fall-back, bottom-line attitude is, bluntly, acceptance — because of 
the inevitability of ever-evolving technology. We’ve come too far along the road, 
the argument goes, to consider a qualitatively different destination. Michael 
Pollan expressed this idea quite simply: “The doors to Eden have closed.” 29 

Behind the denial and the threadbare delusions, something of “Eden” 
has persisted. Colin Turnbull told us that “All Mbuti talk, shout, whisper, 
and sing to the forest...addressing it as mother or father or both, referring to 
its goodness and ability to ‘cure” or ‘make good.’” 30 Turnbull judged “that in 
terms of conscious dedication to human relationships that are both affective 
and effective, the primitive is ahead of us all the way.” 31 Consider the Bajans 
of Southeast Asia, whose connection to the earth includes the ability to find 
a particular patch of ocean on overcast nights, out of sight of land. 32 

Marx got it wrong when he reversed himself and decided that we can’t 
do without division of labor after all. Deleuze and Guattari got it wrong when 
they counseled that we should “do away with foundations, nullify endings 
and beginnings.” 33 Vattimo and Rorty didn’t even try, with their postmodern 
“weak thought” that eschews confrontation with the extremity of our time, 
in favor of a very mild reformist hope. 34 Noam Chomsky concurs. Variations 
on the theme of the monumental failure of the Left. 

The physical, psychic and moral avoidance builds up, accompanied 
by the rest of the devastation. We need, in Marie-Florine Bruneau’s 
prescription, “a radicality that consists in an unrelenting resistance to and 
an undoing of procedures of reification.” 3S Without such an effort with real 
consequences, the “inescapable” outcome is just that. We must breach the 
doors of the barrenness and heal the rupture between realms of being. “We 
are all part of Mother Earth. We cannot break away from that. We are going 
to have to understand this so we can look at each other,” according to Hopi 
spokesperson Thomas Banyacya. 36 

We long to be exiles no longer, and the pressure is ready to boil out 
from under the lid. It’s later than that for an order that plainly has no 
answers. So when something is falling, give it a kick, goes some good advice. 
We can step off the two-inch-high tightrope, and exult in a world no longer 
controlled or directed. Mendelssohn’s Elijah gives a call: “0 come everyone 
that thirsteth, 0 come to the waters.” 

—September 2010 




1 Michel Serres, The Five Senses, translated by Margaret Sankey and Peter 
Cowley (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008), p. 234. 

2 Thomas Merton, Dancing in the Water of Life (New York: Harper Collins, 
1995), p. 240. 

3 Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage, 1964), pp 142- 

4 Jeff Benjamin, personal communication, February 28, 2010. 

5 Tom Darby, Sojourns in the New World: Reflections on Technology (Ottawa: 
Carleton University Press, 1986), p. 58. 

6 Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 
1991), p. 32. 

7 Steve Grand, Creation: Life and How to Make It (Cambridge, MA: Harvard 
University Press, 2000), p. 4. 

8 Ignacio L. Gotz, Technology and the Spirit (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001), pp. 
235, 239. 

9 Buckminster Fuller, Utopia or Oblivion (New York: Overlook Press, 1972). 

10 The key text is “The Question Concerning Technology” and a quite adequate 
discussion is Richard Rojcewicz, The Gods and Technology (Albany: State 
University of New York Press, 2006). 

11 Friedrich Georg Juenger, The Failure of Technology (Hinsdale, IL: Henry 
Regnery Company, 1949), p. viii. 

12 /bid., p. 144. 

13 Paul Shepard, The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game (New York: Charles 
Scribner’s Sons, 1973), p. 36. 

14 /bid., p. 259. 

15 Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p. 17. 

16 Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds (Cambridge, 
UK: Polity Press, 2003), p. 62. 

17 /bid., p. 64. 

18 Tom Darby, “On Spiritual Crisis, Globalization, and Planetary Rule,” in Peter 
Augustine Lawler and Dale McConkey, Faith, Reason and Political Life Today 
(Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2000), p. 60. 

19 Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race," 
Discover, May 1987. 

20 David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), p. 
272. His Becoming Animal (2010) is a rehash of Spell, with the same refusal 
to take on what continues to destroy that which he purports to value. 



21 Andy Fisher, Radical Ecopsychology (Albany: State University of New York 
Press, 2002), p. 161. 

22 Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History, translated by Liz Heron (New York: 
Verso, 2005), e.g. pp. 27, 29. 

23 Henry Hitchings, "Making Dates," review of a Shuichi Yoshida novel in the 
Times Literary Supplement, August 20 & 27, 2010. 

24 Don DeLillo, Underworld (London: Picador, 1998), p. 465. 

25 Kathleen Dean Moore et al., eds., How It Is (Tucson: University of Arizona 
Press, 2007). Foreword, p. xi. 

26 Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Old Way (New York: Picador, 2006), p. 12. 

27 A product of Barcelona’s Biloop Technologic, S.L. Ki Mae Heusser et al., ABC 
News, November 6, 2009. 

28 Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 
1971), p. 93. 

29 Quoted in John Opie, Virtual America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 
2008), p. 204. 

30 Colin Turnbull, The Human Cycle (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983), p. 30. 

31 /bid., p. 21. 

32 James Hamilton-Paterson, Seven-Tenths (London: Europa, 2009), p. 311. 

33 Gilles Deleuze, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia 
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 25. This is the 
rhizome concept. 

34 Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo, The Future of Religion (New York: 
Columbia University Press, 2004). 

35 Marie-Florine Bruneau, Women Mystics Confront the Modern World (Albany: 
State University of New York Press, 1998), p. 6. 

36 David Suzuki and Peter Knudson, eds., Wisdom of the Elders (New York: 
Bantam Books, 1992), p. 242. 







memory, loss 

MEMORY, according to Henri Bergson, occupies the space between mind 
and body. Poet W.S. Merwin called it “what we forget with.” Contrarily, one 
of Freud’s strongest convictions was that the past once experienced is in- 

Today modernity carries all along at a dizzying pace, away from 
what was once lived. The current cultural preoccupation with memory, 
for example as a focus of contemporary historiography 1 , testifies to a 
generalized and very uneasy sense of loss . 2 A sense that so much has lost its 
meaning in modem life. In the high-tech mass culture lifespace “memory 
itself is perceived to be in a state of insecurity or even disintegration .” 3 The 
self seems episodic, cut off from a continuity with what has come before. 
Memory seems adrift, atrophying, suggesting a dystopian nightmare of a 
future without memory . 4 

It is the search for grounds for actively living, as distinct from passively 
hoping to survive a darkening world, that establishes memory as a cognitive 
issue. Memory is a link to what is instinctual, non-instrumental. Charles 
Scott referred to its “escape from systems and formulations .” 5 And consider 
the paradox involved in the injunction to remember. Characteristically, 
memories emerge as spontaneous evocations, in a non-domesticated way, 
outside of our command. 

In the case of traumatic memory, the work of mourning is required, 
and not only where individual pain is concerned. Critical memory may be a 
necessary part of insight and healing, where personal and collective memory 
meet. We remember what the reigning culture expects us to remember, but 
this social process can be altered. 

Memory is multifaceted. Why are so many memoirs of childhood 
written late in life? How is that a person exposed to a life-threatening 

situation may experience a panoramic memory in which her whole life 
passes before her in an instant? Why has memory changed so drastically 
in our own time? As John Kotre sees it, “The context of autobiographical 
memory [now] is vastly different from what it was [in 1900] and light years 
away from what it was for almost all of human existence.” 6 

Yet what is more uniquely personal than memories that come back 
to us — a priceless flavor that calls to us, awakening our senses and our 
emotions. Theodor Adorno revealed, “I simply wanted to return to where I 
had my childhood, ultimately from the feeling that what we achieve in life 
is little more than the attempt to realize our childhood while transforming 
it.” 7 Early experiences ground us in time and place; little wonder we seem to 
cling to them, seek them, as life tears us away from this grounding. “Where 
is here tonight? Where am I? Where are you?” wondered Kerouac in Vanity 
of Duluoz, a memoir of his youth. 8 

From another perspective, memory is just one more social instrument 
that legitimates a mad, malignant society. But the Greek word for memory, 
anamnesis, signifies a return, retaking, or recovering of what has been 
experienced. And the lure of what we sense as innocent and spontaneous is 
a pleasurable motive. Like dreams, memories are not delivered or bound by 
time. Time cannot touch them. 

We know that social memory is fractured by history, but flashes of 
our very early background may remain in personal memory. All life on 
Earth is threatened now, no less our own lives; a new kind of recollection 
is called for, a re-collecting of experience that has been largely buried, 
and is now urgently needed. “Remembrance of the past may give rise to 
dangerous insights, and the established society seems to be apprehensive 
of the subversive contents of memory,” observed Herbert Marcuse. 9 We 
must recover some kind of deep memory to operate against the structural 
amnesia engineered and constantly reproduced by civilization. Memory’s 
best potential is the promise of a lifeline to the 99 percent of human 
existence outside of the machine of domestication which is civilization. 
What is not altogether dead may be reawakened and reanimated, if we can 
free ourselves from the order of time. 

There is bodily memory, an intimate of the corporeal intentionality 
that ties us to our Mother Earth in the first place — an active immanence 
of the lived past in our physical selves. In mental life nothing which has 
once been formed can perish, Freud concluded. This principle applies most 


Future Primitive Revisited 

deeply to the kind of memory that inheres in us from the depth of so many 
millennia prior to our enslavement. For Walter Benjamin, a key aspect of 
Proust’s thought is “a not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been.” He 
went on to describe how the novelist’s project is turned toward the future: 
an “imminent awakening is poised, like the wooden horse of the Greeks, 
in the Troy of dreams.” 10 Lewis Carroll also happened upon this latent 
opportunity. “ ‘I'm sure [my memory] only works one way,” Alice remarked. 
‘I can’t remember things before they happen.” ‘It’s a poor sort of memory 
that only works backwards,” the Queen remarked.” 11 

Memory is bodily, alive. But memories — like so much else in our 
lives today — are becoming unmoored. The very notion of memory may be 
approaching its end. As the conscious apprehension of past experience, it 
is compromised as unique, direct experience loses itself in the welter of 
an ever more troubled life-sphere. This is not an overnight development. 
In his essay “The Storyteller,” written in 1936, Walter Benjamin judged 
that “experience has fallen in value.” 12 Adomo saw that “the specter of 
man without memory.. .is more than an aspect of decline.. .it is necessarily 
linked with the principles of progress in bourgeois society.” 13 The withering 
of experience has only become more dominant in the techno-world. Beset 
by “information sickness,” a mounting data overload cut off from any living 
basis, we now must struggle for experience as much as we sometimes 
struggle with it. Memory tends to evaporate in this denuded context. 

Everything we experience only vicariously, instead of personally, 
erodes the wellsprings of our autonomous depth and memory. The trajectory 
is not one of increasing forgetfulness but of increasing non-memory: we 
have less and less to forget. Maurice Halbwach’s comment that “History 
starts only when tradition ends” 14 traces this movement back to the clash 
between history and the lived past. In this sense, (written) history is pitted 
directly against memory, displacing its importance as social memory. 

History’s emergence coincides, roughly speaking, with the domination 
of tools by systems of technology, as civilization arose. “What is peculiar to 
a history of memory is the history of the modes of its transmission,” as Paul 
Ricoeur put it 15 , bringing the two dimensions into focus. 

Technical means of extending voluntary recall are prosthetic, and 
diminish the uniqueness of the passing moment. Technical means come 
in various forms. Plato argued that literacy did not promote remembering, 
but undermined it; both writing and printing can be seen as technologies 



that render original memory redundant. Technology subordinates life to its 
measure, objectifying experience as technological transmission. In studies 
about remembering displayed objects, Gary Lupyan found that verbal labels 
actually impair memory — a recent example of how symbolic modes get 
between us and — the world. 16 

It’s obvious that technology is central to the rampant, global eco- 
crisis. Just as evident is the high-tech loss of thought, feeling, and memory. 
“How much memory do you have?” of course has only one meaning now, a 
reminder of the collapsing distinction between human and machine. 

A sense of the past in any sense at all is a casualty of postmodern 
technoculture. Lost, like so many dimensions, places, senses, as memory 
is continually transmuted into a “series of pure and unrelated presents,” 17 
presents robbed of presentness, immediacy, and texture. Langdon Winner 
summed it up perfectly: technology “is a license to forget.” 18 

Memory is a selective, not a unitary phenomenon. Forager/hunter- 
gatherer societies, with no institutional authority, have had no need to 
memorialize those who preceded them. However, we need to draw on what 
Merleau-Ponty called “the world’s vast Memory.” 19 

“In the last decades the relationship between history and memory, 
history and oblivion, has been scrutinized with unprecedented intensity,” as 
Carlo Ginzburg noted. 20 Part of the oblivion, in an ever more technological 
lifespace, is the pressure against memory that comes from the collapse of 
the distinction between machine and human, and the growing reification 
of human relations. This leads in turn to the extinguishing of specific 
individual experience. 

In the mid-’90s I tried to explore memory 21 , and even before the next 
decade is out, it’s clear how much more invasive the pressures on memory 
have become. Insomnia affects millions, as stress and anxiety exact an 
increasing toll. (Stress produces cortisol, a hormone that corrodes memory, 
to cite one particular.) 

By deepening our recollection of two million years of human life 
before civilization, can we begin to make a bridge to that reality, so different 
from our nightmare existence now? 




1 Jeffrey Blustein, The Moral Demands of Memory (New York: Cambridge 
University Press, 2008), p. 176. 

2 Geoffrey Cubitt, History and Memory (Manchester: Manchester University 
Press, 2007), p. 244. 

3 Ibid., p. 61. 

4 Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 7. 

5 Charles E. Scott, The Time of Memory (Albany: State University of New York 
Press, 1999), p. 9. 

6 John Katre, White Gloves: How We Create Ourselves through Memory (New 
York: Free Press, 1995), p. 9. 

7 Theodor W. Adorno, “Auf Die Frage: Warum sind Sie zuriickgekerht” (1962 
radio address), in Gesammelte Schriften (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 
1986), p. 395. 

8 Jack Kerouac, Vanity of Duluoz (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 205. 

9 Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), p. 48. 

10 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of 
Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 883. 

11 Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking 
Glass (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), p. 172. 

12 Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” in Illuminations (New York: Harcourt, 
Brace & World, 1968), pp 83-84. 

13 Theodor Adomo, quoted in Herbert Marcuse, op.c it., p. 99. 

14 Quoted in Paul Ricoeur, Memory. History. Forgetting (Chicago: The University 
of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 398. 

15 Ibid., p. 386. 

16 Christine Kenneally, "When Language Can Hold the Answer," New York 
Times, April 22, 2008, p. D3. 

17 David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 
1990), p. 301. 

18 Langdon Winner, Autonomous Technology (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 
1977), p. 315. 

19 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (New York: 

Humanities Press, 1962), p. 70. 

20 Carlo Ginzburg, "History and/or Memory,” in Robert S. Westman and David 
Biale, eds.. Thinking Impossibilities (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 
2008), p. 173. 

21 John Zerzan, “In Memoriam,” in Running on Emptiness (Los Angeles: Feral 
House, 2002); the essay was first published in 1994. 






SILENCE USED TO BE, to varying degrees, a means of isolation. Now it 
is the absence of silence that works to render today’s world empty and iso- 
lating. Its reserves have been invaded and depleted. The Machine marches 
globally forward and silence is the dwindling place where noise has not yet 

Civilization is a conspiracy of noise, designed to cover up the 
uncomfortable silences. The silence-honoring Wittgenstein understood the 
loss of our relationship with it. The unsilent present is a time of evaporating 
attention spans, erosion of critical thinking, and a lessened capacity for 
deeply felt experiences. Silence, like darkness, is hard to come by; but mind 
and spirit need its sustenance. 

Certainly there are many and varied sides to silence. There are 
imposed or voluntary silences of fear, grief, conformity, complicity (e.g. the 
AIDS-awareness “Silence=Death” formulation), which are often interrelated 
states. And nature has been progressively silenced, as documented in Rachel 
Carson’s prophetic Silent Spring. Nature cannot be definitively silenced, 
however, which perhaps goes a long way in explaining why some feel it 
must be destroyed. “There has been a silencing of nature, including our own 
nature,” concluded Heidegger , 1 and we need to let this silence, as silence, 
speak. It still does so often, after all, speak louder than words. 

There will be no liberation of humans without the resurrection of 
the natural world, and silence is very pertinent to this assertion. The great 
silence of the universe engenders a silent awe, which the Roman Lucretius 
meditated upon in the first century BCE: “First of all, contemplate the clear, 
pure color of the sky, and all it contains within it: the stars wandering 
everywhere, the moon, the sun and its light with its incomparable 

brilliance. If all these objects appeared to mortals today for the first time, 
if they appeared to their eyes suddenly and unexpectedly, what could one 
cite that would be more marvelous than this totality, and whose existence 
man’s imagination would less have dared to conceive ?” 2 

Down to earth, nature is filled with silences. The alternation of the 
seasons is the rhythm of silence; at night silence descends over the planet, 
though much less so now. The parts of nature resemble great reserves of 
silence. Max Picard’s description is almost a poem: “The forest is like a great 
reservoir of silence out of which the silence trickles in a thin, slow stream 
and fills the air with its brightness. The mountain, the lake, the fields, the 
sky — they all seem to be waiting for a sign to empty their silence onto the 
things of noise in the cities of men .” 3 

Silence is “not the mere absence of something else .” 4 In fact, our 
longings turn toward that dimension, its associations and implications. 
Behind the appeals for silence lies the wish for a perceptual and cultural 
new beginning. 

Zen teaches that “silence never varies ....” 5 But our focus may be 
improved if we turn away from the universalizing placelessness of late 
modernity. Silence is no doubt culturally specific, and is thus experienced 
variously. Nevertheless, as Picard argues, it can confront us with the 
“original beginnings of all things ,” 6 and presents objects to us directly and 
immediately. Silence is primary, summoning presence to itself; so it’s a 
connection to the realm of origin. 

In the industrially-based technosphere, the Machine has almost 
succeeded in banishing quietude. A natural history of silence is needed 
for this endangered species. Modernity deafens. The noise, like technology, 
must never retreat — and never does. 

For Picard, nothing has changed human character so much as the loss 
of silence . 7 Thoreau called silence “our inviolable asylum,” an indispensable 
refuge that must be defended . 8 Silence is necessary against the mounting 
sound. It’s feared by manipulative mass culture, from which it remains 
apart, a means of resistance precisely because it does not belong to this 
world. Many things can still be heard against the background of silence; 
thus a way is opened, a way for autonomy and imagining. 

“Sense opens up in silence,” wrote Jean-Luc Nancy . 9 It is to be 
approached and experienced bodily, inseparably from the world, in the 
silent core of the self. It can highlight our embodiment, a qualitative step 



away from the hallmark machines that work so resolutely to disembody 
us. Silence can be a great aid in unblocking ourselves from the prevailing, 
addictive information sickness at loose in society . 10 It offers us the place to 
be present to ourselves, to come to grips with who we are. Present to the 
real depth of the world in an increasingly thin, flattened technoscape. 

The record of philosophy vis-a-vis silence is generally dismal, as good 
a gauge as any to its overall failure. Socrates judged silence to be a realm of 
nonsense, while Aristotle claimed that being silent caused flatulence . 11 At 
the same time, however, Raoul Mortley could see a “growing dissatisfaction 
with the use of words,” “an enormous increase in the language of silence” 
in classical Greece . 12 

Much later, Pascal was terrified by the “silence of the universe ,” 13 and 
Hegel clearly felt that what could not be spoken was simply the untrue, 
that silence was a deficiency to be overcome. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche 
both emphasized the prerequisite value of solitude, diverging from anti- 
silence Hegel, among others. 

Deservedly well known is a commentary on Odysseus and the Sirens 
(from Homer’s Odyssey) by Horkheimer and Adomo. They depict the Sirens” 
effort to sidetrack Odysseus from his journey as that of Eros trying to stay 
the forces of repressive civilization. Kafka felt that silence would have been 
a more irresistible means than singing . 14 

“Phenomenology begins in silence,” according to Herbert Spiegelberg . 15 
To put phenomena or objects somehow first, before ideational constructions, 
was its founding notion. Or as Heidegger had it, there is a thinking deeper 
and more rigorous than the conceptual, and part of this involves a primordial 
link between silence and understanding . 16 Postmodernism, and Derrida in 
particular, deny the widespread awareness of the inadequacy of language, 
asserting that gaps of silence in discourse, for example, are barriers to 
meaning and power. In fact, Derrida strongly castigates “the violence of 
primitive and prelogical silence,” denouncing silence as a nihilist enemy 
of thought . 17 Such strenuous antipathy demonstrates Derrida’s deafness to 
presence and grace, and the threat silence poses to someone for whom the 
symbolic is everything. Wittgenstein understood that something pervades 
everything sayable, something which is itself unsayable. This is the sense 
of his well-known last line of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Of that 
which one cannot speak, one should remain silent .” 18 

Can silence be considered, approached, without reification, in the 



here and now? I think it can be an open, strengthening way of knowing, a 
generative condition. Silence can also be a dimension of fear, grief — even 
of madness and suicide. In fact, it is quite difficult to reify silence, to freeze 
it into any one non-living thing. At times the reality we interrogate is 
mute; an index of the depth of the still present silence? Wonder may be the 
question that best gives answers, silently and deeply. 

“Silence is so accurate,” said Mark Rothko, 19 a line that has intrigued 
me for years. Too often we disrupt silence, only to voice some detail that 
misses an overall sense of what we are part of, and how many ways there 
are to destroy it. In the Antarctica winter of 1933, Richard Byrd recorded: 
“Took my daily walk at 4PM... I paused to listen to the silence ...the day was 
dying, the night being bom — but with great peace. Here were imponderable 
processes and forces of the cosmos, harmonious and soundless.” 20 How 
much is revealed in silence through the depths and mysteries of living 
nature. Annie Dillard also provides a fine response to the din: “At a certain 
point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, to the world, Now 
I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and 
wait, listening.” 21 

It is not only the natural world that is accessible via silence. Cioran 
indicated the secrets in the silence of things, deciding that “All objects have 
a language which we can decipher only in total silence.” 22 David Michael 
Levin’s The Body's Recollection of Being counsels us to “learn to think 
through the body...we should listen in silence to our bodily felt experience.” 25 
And in the interpersonal sphere, silence is a result of empathy and being 
understood, without words much more profoundly than otherwise. 

Native Americans seem to have always placed great value on silence 
and direct experience, and in indigenous cultures in general, silence denotes 
respect and self-effacement. It is at the core of the Vision Quest, the solitary 
period of fasting and closeness to the earth to discover one’s life path and 
purpose. Inuit Norman Hallendy assigns more insight to the silent state of 
awareness called inuinaqtuk than to dreaming. 24 Native healers very often 
stress silence as an aid to serenity and hope, while stillness is required for 
success in the hunt. These needs for attentiveness and quiet may well have 
been key sources of indigenous appreciation of silence. 

Silence reaches back to presence and original community, before 
the symbolic compromised both silence and presence. It predates what 
Levinas called “the unity of representation,” 25 that always works to silence 



the silence and replace it with the homelessness of symbolic structures. 
The Latin root for silence, silere, to say nothing, is related to sinere, to 
allow to be in a place. We are drawn to those places where language falls 
most often, and most crucially, silent. The later Eleidegger appreciated the 
realm of silence, as did Holderlin, one of Heidegger’s important reference 
points, especially in his Late Hymns . 26 The insatiable longing that Holderlin 
expressed so powerfully related not only to an original, silent wholeness, 
but also to his growing comprehension that language must always admit 
its origin in loss. 

A century and a half later, Samuel Beckett made use of silence as an 
alternative to language. In Krapp's Last Tape and elsewhere, the idea that 
all language is an excess of language is strongly on offer. Beckett complains 
that “in the forest of symbols” there is never quiet, and longs to break 
through the veil of language to silence . 27 Northrup Frye found the purpose 
of Beckett’s work “to lie in nothing other than the restoration of silence .” 28 

Our most embodied, alive-to-this-earth selves realize best the limits 
of language and indeed, the failure of the project of representation. In this 
state it is easiest to understand the exhaustion of language, and the fact 
that we are always a word’s length from immediacy. Kafka commented 
on this in “In the Penal Colony,” where the printing press doubled as an 
instrument of torture. For Thoreau, “as the truest society approaches 
always nearer to solitude, so the most excellent speech finally falls into 
silence .” 29 Conversely, mass society banishes the chance of autonomy, just 
as it forecloses on silence. 

Holderlin imagined that language draws us into time, but it is silence 
that holds out against it. Time increases in silence; it appears not to flow, 
but to abide. Various temporalities seem close to losing their barriers; past, 
present, future less divided. 

But silence is a variable fabric, not a uniformity or an abstraction. Its 
quality is never far from its context, just as it is the field of the non-mediated. 
Unlike time, which has for so long been a measure of estrangement, silence 
cannot be spatialized or converted into a medium of exchange. This is why 
it can be a refuge from time’s incessancy. Gumemanz, near the opening 
of Wagner’s Parsifal, sings “Here time becomes space.” Silence avoids this 
primary dynamic of domination. 

So here we are, with the Machine engulfing us in its various assaults 
on silence and so much else, intruding deeply. The note North Americans 



spontaneously hum or sing is B- natural, which is the corresponding tone of 
our 60 cycles per second alternating current electricity. (In Europe, G-sharp 
is “naturally” sung, matching that continent’s 50 cycles per second AC 
electricity.) In the globalizing, homogenizing Noise Zone we may soon be 
further harmonized. Pico Ayer refers to “my growing sense of a world that’s 
singing the same song in a hundred accents all at once.” 30 

We need a refusal of the roar of standardization, its information- 
noise and harried, surface “communication” modes. A No to the unrelenting, 
colonizing penetrability of non-silence, pushing into every non-place. The 
rising racket measures, by decibel upticks and its polluting reach, the 
degrading mass world — Don DeLillo’s White Noise. 

Silence is a rebuke to all this, and a zone for reconstituting ourselves. 
It gathers in nature, and can help us gather ourselves for the battles that 
will end debasement. Silence as a powerful tool of resistance, the unheard 
note that might precede insurrection. It was, for example, what slave 
masters feared most. 31 In various Asian spiritual traditions, the muni, 
vowed to silence, is the person of greatest capacity and independence — the 
one who does not need a master for enlightenment. 32 

The deepest passions are nurtured in silent ways and depths. 
How else is respect for the dead most signally expressed, intense love 
best transmitted, our profoundest thoughts and visions experienced, 
the unspoiled world most directly savored? In this grief-stricken world, 
according to Max Horkheimer, we “become more innocent” through grief. 33 
And perhaps more open to silence — as comfort, ally, and stronghold. 

— December 2007 




1 Martin Heidegger, What is a Thing? (Chicago, Henry Regnery Company, 
1967), p. 288. 

2 Quoted in Pierre Hadot, The Veil of Isis, translated by Michael Chan 
(Cambridge, MA: Bellknap Press, 2000), pp 212-213. 

3 Max Picard, The World of Silence (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1952), 
p. 139. 

4 Bernard P. Dauenhauer, Silence: the Phenomenon and Its Ontological 
Significance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), p. vii. 

5 Chang Chung-Yuan, Original Teachings of Ch'an Buddhism (New York: 
Vintage, 1971), p. 12. 

6 Picard, op.cit., p. 22. 

7 Ibid., p. 221. 

8 Henry David Thoreau, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," in 
The Works of Thoreau, edited by Henry Seidel Canby (Boston: Houghton 
Mifflin, 1946), p. 241. 

9 Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening, translated by Charlotte Mandell (New York: 
Fordham University Press, 2007), p. 26. 

10 I first encountered this term in Ted Mooney’s novel, Easy Travel to Other 
Planets (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1981). 

11 Aristotle, Works of Aristotle, translated by S. Forster, Vol. VII, Problemata 
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927), p. 896, lines 20-26. 

12 Raoul Mortley, From Word to Silence I (Bonn: Hanstein, 1986), p. 110. 

13 Blaise Pascal, Pensees, edited by Phillipe Seller (Paris: Bordas, 1991), p. 256. 

14 Franz Kafka, Parables, cited in George Steiner, Language and Silence (New 
York: Atheneum, 1967), p. 54. 

15 Herbert Spiegelberg, The Phenomenological Movement, Vol. Two (The Hague: 
Martinus Nijhoff, 1969), p. 693. 

16 Martin Heidegger, "Letter on Humanism," Basic Writings (San Francisco: 
Harper San Francisco, 1992), p. 258. 

17 Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass (Chicago: 
University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 130. 

18 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Routledge, 
1974), p. 89. 

19 Quoted in James E.B. Breslin, Rothko: A Biography (Chicago: University of 
Chicago Press, 1993), p. 387. 

20 Quoted in Hannah Merker, Listening (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), p. 127. 

21 Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (New York: HarperPerennial, 1982), 
pp 89-90. 

22 E.M. Cioran, Tears and Saints, translated by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnson 


(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 53. 

23 David Michael Levin, The Body's Recollection of Being (Boston: Routledge, 
1985), pp 60-61. 

24 Norman Hallendy, Inuksuit: Silent Messengers of the Arctic (Toronto: Douglas 
& McIntyre, 2000), pp 84-85. 

25 Emmanuel Levinas, Proper Names, translated by Michael B. Smith (Stanford, 
CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 4. 

26 Emery Edward George, Holderlin's “Ars Poetica": A Part-Rigorous Analysis of 
Information Structure in the Late Hymns (The Hague: Mouton, 1973), pp 308, 
363, 367. 

27 Samuel Beckett, "German letter" dated 9 July 1937, in C.J. Ackerley and S.E. 
Gontorski, The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett (New York: Grove Press, 
2004), p. 221. 

28 Northrup Frye, “The Nightmare Life in Death," in J.D. O'Hara, editor, 
Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Malloy, Malone Dies, and The 
Unnamable (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970), p. 34. 

29 Thoreau, op.cit., p. 241. 

30 Pico Ayer, The Global Soul (New York: Knopf, 2000), p. 271. 

31 Mark M. Smith, Listening to Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: The 
University of North Carolina Press), p. 68. 

See also Thomas Merton, The Strange Islands (New York: New Directions, 
1957); specifically, this passage from “The Tower of Babel: A Morality": 
Leader: Who is He? 

Captain: His name is Silence. 

Leader: Useless! Throw him out! Let silence be crucified! 

32 Alex Wayman, “Two traditions of India — truth and silence," Philosophy East 
and West 24 (October 1974), pp 389-403. 

33 Max Horkheimer, Dawn and Decline: Notes 1926-1931 and 1950-1969 (New 
York: Seabury Press, 1978), p. 140. 





THE VERTIGO of techno-modemity is an invasive sense of nothingness. 
This certainly also registers on the level of what is directly felt, not just 
thought. Already in 1984 Frederic Jameson referred to a “waning of affect” 
in postmodern society, an emotional shriveling or retreat. There is a thin- 
ness or flatness making its way into this most vital terrain of being human. 

Our affective state is the very texture and timbre of our lives. Nothing 
is more immediate to us than our own feelings. This is constitutive, gives 
us the “feel” we have of the world, is what actually connects us to reality. 
Emotions are cultural artifacts, more so than ideas. 

In this vein Lucien Febvre (1938, 1941) called for a history of the 
sensibilities, and Anne Vincent-Buffault (1986) contributed Histoire des 
larmes (History of Tears). Are our passions not at the core of our existence? 

Every culture has its own emotional climate, every political struggle 
is an affective one. The fight against the drive of civilization is of course 
included. Things are felt before they are thought or believed, and so 
hegemony — or its undoing — has its foundation here. Adam Smith’s first 
book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), saw in emotions the thread 
that weaves together the fabric of society. None of this is a remarkable 
finding, but we often act as though the field of affect is of no real relevance. 

Reason and reflection are somewhat refined expressions of the 
passions themselves. Antonio Damasio, in fact, provides the notion that 
“consciousness begins as a feeling, a special kind of feeling to be sure, but 
a feeling nonetheless.. .a feeling of knowing” (1999, p. 312). His suggestion 
reknits the mind-body split so essential to life in mass society. 

So many debilitating splits: humans from nature, work from play, 
among others. We are also being moved away from physical sensations, 


from direct experience. Feelings are embodied, but what is happening to 
the context of that embodiment? Isolation grows apace and social bonds 
keep weakening. Friends are exchanged for online network “friends,” and 
the one-person household is an ever-larger percentage of all homes. Where 
is home? The subject is dispersed and the social, according to Baudrillard, 
really no longer exists. 

We feel all this, even if the depthlessness of the dominant culture 
does work, as Jameson suggests, to deform and superficialize our emotional 
core in its image. This core is its own embodiment, perhaps the strongest 
redoubt of resistance. Otherwise, in a bitter irony, we wouldn’t be in so 
much dis-ease. We wouldn’t be so viscerally aware of the heart-brokenness 
of this modem void. We wouldn’t be so anxious and in so much pain. 

The Affective Turn (2007) reflects by its title current awareness of the 
centrality of emotion as culture. Introduced by communist Michael Hardt, 
it is, however, much more an example of the dominant paradigm than a 
helpful corrective. The leftist commitment to industrialized Progress is a 
key part of the onslaught against inner nature. Problem, not solution. 

We embody a continuous history of love and suffering, bearing 
witness to what has moved us. Love, as Kierkegaard stressed, is the ground 
of all significance in life as we know it. We have loves and cares before we 
learn to formulate anything in language. As Martin Amis put it (The Times, 
6/11/06), “Love turns out to be the only part of us that is solid, as the world 
turns upside down and the screen goes black.” 

But the failure of the event of love in contemporary societies is as 
obvious as it is painful, as recounted variously in the novels of Michel 
Houllebecq, for example. Anarcho-novelist Tom Robbins has emphasized 
the question, “How do you make love stay?” We may well agree with 
Ecclesiastes (6:16) that “A faithful friend is the medicine of life,” but where 
are the friends? The marked decline in friendship in the U.S. in recent 
decades is well-documented (e.g. McPherson, Smith-Lovin and Brashears, 
American Sociological Review, June 2006). 

And it is precisely here that radical theory fails, or fails even to show 
up. Why is it “desire” (or more alienated still, “seduction,” with Baudrillard) 
that is the focus, not love? As bell hooks reported, “When I talked of love 
with my generation, I found it made everyone scared” (All About Love, p. 
xix). Yet there’s such a need for it in this desert of the spirit, our culture of 
mounting lovelessness. 



The opposite o f love isn’t hate, b y the way, but indifference, hallmark of 
postmodern cynicism and hipness. So far, all has knelt before productionist 
existence in the draining technoculture. But we need to summon the depth 
of relationship against the dominant depthlessness, wherein so very much 
is shifting and disposable. A key feature is love of the unrealized potential 
of affective actuality, both in ourselves and in others. 

There are of course potential dead ends and snares in the way. For 
example, the sexist assumptions that so often compromise romantic love in 
a patriarchal, male-defined culture. Or the frequently world-denying aspects 
of religious love, its tendency to retreat from authentic individuality in favor 
of a devouring identification that negates rather than accepts otherness. 

If emotion is a behavior, love is certainly also an action as well as 
a basic mental process. It is a key to emotional growth and strength that 
should lead us into greater communion with the world. Love redeems and 
gives meaning, emphasizing grace and the gift. The gift as the opposite of a 
merciless present, as the right life. 

Luce Irigaray expresses this ably: “The gift has no goal. No for. And 
no object. The gift — is given. Before any division into donor and recipient. 
Before any separate identities of giver and receiver. Even before the gift." 

To speak of what may be given can be a reminder of what has been 
taken away. In the 1950s Laurens van der Post encountered people who 
could carry all that they owned in one hand. He referred to “that wonderful 
Bushman laugh which rises sheer from the stomach, a laugh you never hear 
among civilized people” (The Lost World of the Kalahari, p. 244). What a feat, 
the erasure of such joy at being alive on the earth. Freud’s psychoanalytic 
goal was to change neurotic misery into “normal” unhappiness; Lacan’s was 
that the analyst leant to be as wretched as everyone else. 

It is striking (e.g. Ronald Miller, Facing Human Suffering, 2004) how 
extremely rare is the mention of terms like suffering, anguish, sorrow in 
the literature of psychology. Such things are clearly of no real theoretical 
concern, merely symptoms to be classified under “less emotional” 
descriptions. Simone Weil went to the factories to understand suffering. The 
factories are still there, but the immiseration is arguably more generalized 
now in a more placeless, synthetic society. Elaine Scarry (The Body in 
Pain, 1985) saw torture as “a miniaturization of the world, of civilization” 
(p. 38). Post-traumatic stress disorder, originally diagnosed as stemming 
from combat trauma, is now very widely applied as a diagnosis; another 



commentary on the state of society which contains more everyday blows, 
even everyday atrocities. Chellis Glendinning’s observation (1994) applies: 
personal trauma commonly reflects the trauma of civilization itself. 

It is a commonplace that mental/emotional illness is the nation’s 
leading health problem. And as Melinda Davis has observed (The New 
Culture of Desire, 2002, p. 66), “Anxiety is the black plague — and the 
common cold — of our days.” A helpful exercise, as I see it, is to put all of 
politics in terms of health, i.e. what in social life is healthy or unhealthy? 
Isn’t this, after all, the bottom line? 

The overall picture is indeed well-known. Anxiety and stress 
undermine the immune system; as many as 50 percent who have an 
anxiety condition also suffer from major depression. The surge in anxiety 
occurs against the backdrop of a rise in depression across all industrialized 
countries (e.g. Pettit and Joiner, Chronic Depression, 2006). Interestingly, 
R.C. Solomon (The Passions, 1993, pp 62-63) sees depression as a “way 
of wrenching ourselves from the established values of our world.” Along 
these lines the poet W.S. Merwin wrote, “And yet his grief is a great guide 
through this world. Even, perhaps, the surest of guides. As long as guides 
are needed.” (in Breathing On Your Own, 2001, p. 192). 

At the beginning of May 2008, several reports surfaced about the 
high incidence of chronic physical pain: almost 30 percent of the U.S. 
population is so afflicted. To go along with all the rest of it, from increasing 
numbers of random, rampage shootings to serious obesity now causing 
diabetes and heart disease in children; kids on behavior-modification drugs 
from infancy; mushrooming rates of asthma, autism, and allergies; parents 
killing their children; millions hooked on Viagra; tens of millions dependent 
on pharmaceuticals for sleep, etc. etc. The whole picture is increasingly 
pathological and frightening. 

It is little wonder that we find tons of self-help books sold, an intense 
preoccupation with psychological well-being, and an endless pageant of 
emotional suffering on television and the Internet. Notice the rather rapid 
transit of the succession of four best-selling magazines: Life, People, Us, and Self. 
The narrowing of perspective in an already individualistic society is obvious. 

Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism (1979) cited “a sense of 
inner emptiness, boundless repressed rage” in America (p. 74). Writing in 
2008, Patricia Pearson concluded that we now inhabit “a state far colder 
than narcissism” (A Brief History of Anxiety, p. 127). 



An always accommodating postmodern sensibility proclaims the end 
of a core self, in favor of a multiplicity of shifting roles to be played. As 
social ties wither, is there a core anything left? Dispersed, with the human 
touch as systematically disappearing as contact with nature, we fear being 
alone with ourselves. A diffused, distracted mode of life represses memories 
of suffering and longs for a caress. 

What is Progress, a.k.a. Modernity? “It is the high residues of 
hazardous and potentially lethal chemicals inside your fat cells. It is you 
sitting inside and turning on the television or computer on a beautiful day. 
It is you shopping when you are depressed. It is the feeling you get that 
something is missing." (Kevin Tucker, “What is the Totality?”) It is perhaps 
odd that Descartes, progenitor of modem alienation, identified wonder as 
the first of his six primitive passions in The Passions of the Soul (1649). 
Where is our capacity for genuine wonder in disenchanted society? 

I can tell you that I am moved by the crickets” persevering song, 
their strong life-voice as summer shuts down in the Pacific Northwest. 
It is always a special joy to hear the geese migrating high above, their 
honking sounding to me like dogs softly barking way up there. There is no 
consciousness separate from an experienced object. What happens when all 
that is experienced is masses, commodities, images? 

The waning of affect, as Jameson put it, as everything else that’s 
alive wanes too. Can we really live meaningless (technified, non-enchanted, 
indirect) lives? What is vivid and immediate does not exist on a screen. How 
spiritually impoverished and lacking in vitality is this emotional culture. 
And what is on the horizon, if not still worse? 

We know in what direction health lies. Freud wrote to Wilhelm Fliess, 
“Happiness is the deferred fulfillment of a prehistoric wish. That is why 
wealth brings so little happiness” (January 16, 1898). Simplicity contains 
everything and in simplicity all is present. Albert Camus (Lyrical and Critical 
Essays, p. 172) hit this note well: “I grew up with the sea and poverty for me 
was sumptuous; then I lost the sea and found all luxuries gray and poverty 





IS HAPPINESS REALLY POSSIBLE in a time of ruin? Can we some- 
how flourish, have complete lives? Is joy any longer compatible with the 
life of today? 

A deep sense of well-being has become an endangered species. 
How often does one hear “It is good to be here”? (Matthew 17:4, Luke 9:5, 
Luke 9:33) or Wordsworth’s reference to “the pleasure which there is in 
life itself” 1 ? Much of the prevailing condition and the dilemma it poses is 
expressed by Adorno’s observation: “A wrong life cannot be lived rightly.” 2 

In this age happiness, if not obsolete, is a test, an opportunity. “To be 
happy is to be able to become aware of oneself without being frightened.” 3 
We seem to be desperate for happiness, as bookshelves, counseling rooms, 
and talk shows promote endless recipes for contentment. But the well- 
worn, feel-good bromides from the likes of Oprah, Eckhart Tolle, and the 
Dalai Lama seem to work about as well as a Happy Meal, happy hour, or 
Coke’s invitation to “Pour Happiness!” 

Gone is the shallow optimism of yesteryear, such as it was. The 
mandatory gospel of happiness is in tatters. As Helene Cixous put it, we are 
“bom to the difficulty in taking pleasure from absence.” 4 We sense only “a 
little light/in great darkness,” to quote Pound, who borrowed from Dante. 5 

How do we explore this? What is expected re: happiness? In light of 
all that stands in its way or erodes it, is happiness mainly a fortuitous 
accident? 6 

Very often, to be sure, happiness is approached in terms of what it 
isn’t. Walter Kerr’s The Decline of Pleasure opens with this: “I am going to 
start out by assuming that you are approximately as unhappy as I am.” 7 “We 
are a society of notoriously unhappy people,” according to Erich Fromm. 8 

But we are not supposed to go around admitting this bottom-line truth 
about ourselves and society. Various contemporary theorists, by the way, 
have steadily chipped away at the very notion of the self, redefining it as 
nothing more than an intersection of shifting discourses. When the self is 
all but erased, “happiness” can no longer even be a valid topic. 

But our yearning for well-being is not so easily written off. Elisabeth 
Roudinesco provides a plausible judgment: “The more individuals are 
promised happiness and the ideal of security, the more their unhappiness 
persists, the steeper the risk profile grows, and the more the victims of 
unkept promises revolt against those who have betrayed them .” 9 

In this precarious world happiness and fear are oddly joined. People 
are afraid. “They are afraid,” Adomo claimed, that “they would lose 
everything, because the only happiness they know even in thought, is to be 
able to hold on to something .” 10 This condition contrasts qualitatively with 
what is known of so many non-domesticated people: their lack of fear, their 
trust in the world they inhabit. 

The Himalayan nation of Bhutan attracted much notice in the middle 
of the first decade of this century for its Gross National Happiness concept: 
the decision to measure the quality of its society not by industrial output 
(Gross National Product), but in terms of its citizens” happiness. Apparently, 
however, Bhutan quickly lost the somewhat isolated character of its 
culture, which had spurred the GNH idea in the first place. Inundated by pop 
culture, celebrity consciousness, consumer fads, and the rest of a globalized 
modernity, the emphasis on happiness as a national value has faded. 

Mass society restricts “happiness” to the spheres of consumption 
and distraction to a great degree. Yet happiness remains an experience of 
fullness, rather than seriously misguided efforts to fill emptiness. Many 
studies show that happiness levels fall with increasing accumulation of 
wealth . 11 In removing ourselves from nature, we become insensible to its 
wholeness and approach it as another passive object to be consumed. 

Is there a truth of happiness, on whose basis happiness can be judged? 
Happiness is as encompassing as it is immediate. It has many facets and 
manifestations. It is elemental, potent; like health, happiness is contagious 
and breeds hope in others. Happiness has to do with one’s whole reaction 
to life, and for that reason alone, it is personal as well as mysterious. The 
philosopher Wittgenstein had a harsh and pessimistic temperament and 
experienced his share of intense anguish. His seems the portrait of an 



unhappy man, and yet his biographer Norman Malcolm reports that his 
last words were, “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” 12 John Keats” brief 
life was overshadowed by illness, but he often claimed that things are 
gorgeous because they die. The sources of happiness lie in various spheres 
of our lives, but characteristically these are not so separate. Human life has 
never been lived in isolation, so we seek experiences that are more than 
just meaningful for ourselves alone. Vivasvan Soni’s insight says a lot: “No 
part of life can be bracketed as irrelevant to happiness. All of life counts 
infinitely. There is no greater tragedy than unhappiness, and no greater 
responsibility for us than happiness.” 13 

In my experience, the cornerstone of happiness is love. Here is the 
dimension where we find the greatest fulfillment. Frantz Fanon, better 
known for his work on other subjects, subscribed to a standard of “authentic 
love — wishing for others what one postulates for oneself.” 14 There are other 
satisfactions, but do they match the satisfying and enriching quality of love 
relations? If a child has love and protection, there is the basis for happiness 
throughout life. If neither is provided, his or her prospects are very limited. 
If only one of them is to be given, I think that love outranks even protection 
or security in terms of the odds for happiness. 

Some have dissented as to the centrality of love. Nietzsche and Sartre 
seem to have seen love as confining, closing off prerogatives. That bloodless 
master of cheap irony, E.M. Cioran, provides this little meditation: “I think of 
that emperor dear to my heart, Tiberius, of his acrimony and his ferocity.... 
I love him because his neighbor seemed to him inconceivable. I love him 
because he loved no one.” 13 

What would a history of happiness look like? Once happiness was 
a central focus of thought in the West. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, for 
example, is a major discourse on the subject. Epicurus spent his life facing 
the question of how to attain happiness, arousing the ire of our modem 
friend Cioran. The latter referred to Epicurus” writings as a “compost heap,” 
citing him as indicative of the false path that occurs “when the problem of 
happiness supplants that of knowledge.” 16 

Much later, the Cartesian account of emotions as so many sensations 
enters the picture, and Voltaire (1694-1778) was the last happy writer, 
according to Roland Barthes. The eigthteenth century saw a deluge of 
writing about happiness, mainly focused on private well-being. A thorough 
de-politicizing of what was meant by happiness was taking place, on the 



eve of mass society. Kant typified this trend, by bonding — even equating — 
duty-oriented morality with happiness. 

The new century exhibited the Romantic emphasis on joy rather 
than happiness (Blake, Wordsworth, et al.), with joy’s strong connotation of 
that which is fleeting. Transient indeed was the hymn to a hopeful future 
expressed in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in particular its final movement 
based on Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” The work has justly been termed the last 
serious music expressing happiness/joy. As industrial life began to spread, 
it can be no coincidence that Hegel saw human history as the record of 
irredeemable misfortune. 

Modem wage labor and political social contract theorizing (Rousseau, 
the U.S. Constitution, etc.) legitimated the pursuit of private happiness. 
In the public sphere, the question of general happiness was downplayed. 
Reward became the name of the game. For Hegel, property and personality 
were almost synonymous; Marx associated happiness with the satisfaction 
of interests alone. 

Sentimentalism was an important facet of the nineteenth century 
cultural ethos: the underlying emotional tableau of lost community. 
A fragmented, anonymous society had all but abandoned the goal of 
widespread happiness. The early Victorian utilitarianism of John Stuart 
Mill, less crude than that of its founder Bentham at least, failed to recognize 
the impoverishment of the age. Mill was the last philosopher of social 

Jean-Frangois Lyotard placed “the withdrawal of the real” at the 
center of the experience of modernity. 17 We are losing the referents, the 
real things, felt contact with what is non-simulated. How could happiness 
not decline in the bargain? It has declined; the technoculture’s ascent is the 
descent of happiness. 18 Today’s dreary, isolating technological frenzy keeps 
sinking it further, with various pathological effects. But our quest remains 
what it was for Spinoza: the search for happiness, with the reality of our 
bodies in a real, bodily world. 

In the 1890s Anton Chekhov visited Sakhalin Island, with its Gilyak 
hunter-gatherers. He observed that they had not yet come to grips with 
roads. “Often,” he noted, “you will see them...making their way in single file 
through the marshes beside the road.” 19 They were always somewhere, and 
were uninterested in being nowhere, on industrialism’s roadway. They had 
not yet lost the singularity of the present, which technology exactly takes 



away. With our dwindling attention spans, foreshortening shallowness 
of thought, and thirst for diversions, how much are we actually in the 
world? The disembodied self becomes increasingly disengaged from reality, 
including emotional reality. 

Anxiety has replaced happiness as the hallmark sensation, now that 
community is absent . 20 We no longer trust our instincts. Maintaining a vast 
distance from the rhythms of nature and primary experiences of the senses 
in their intimate concreteness, the leading “thinkers” so often consecrate or 
uphold this unhappy, disembodied state. Alain Badiou, for example, concurs 
with Kant that truth and overall health are “independent of animality and 
the whole world of sense .” 21 

But what is abstract about happiness? Its states are complete at each 
moment — each embodied moment. “Each happiness comes for the first 
time,” as Levinas realized . 22 Czeslaw Milosz described his happy childhood: 
“I lived without yesterday or tomorrow, in the eternal present. That is, 
precisely, the definition of happiness .” 23 Postmodern irony and detachment, 
with their bedrock of embracing the techno-sphere, constitute one more 
means of wresting us from the present moment. 

A most basic human longing is to belong, to experience union with 
something other than oneself. Bruno Bettelheim described a feeling, 
engendered in his case by great art, “of being in tune with the universe... 
[of] all needs satisfied. I felt as though I were in touch — in communication 
with man’s past and connected with his future .” 24 He associated this with 
Freud’s “oceanic feeling,” the sensation of “an indissoluble bond, of being 
one with the external world as a whole .” 23 

I think it plausible to see this as vestigial — as a visceral, surviving 
link to a previous condition. There is a great deal of anthropological/ 
ethnological literature describing indigenous peoples who live in oneness 
with the natural world and one another. Survival itself necessitated a 
borderlessness between inner and outer worlds. Our ultimate survival 
requires that we recover that oneness. At times we still feel a return to that 
unified state. Fairly often in psychological counseling, there is a search for a 
time in childhood when one was healthy and happy. Arguably, to apply the 
“ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” thesis, each of us re-enacts the larger 
history of humanness. T.S. Eliot’s designation of our return is “through the 
unknown remembered gate .” 26 

Freud counterposed civilization and happiness because civilization 



[domestication, more precisely] is “based on compulsory labor and 
instinctual renunciation.” 27 “Having to fight against the instincts is the 
formula for decadence; so long as life is ascending, happiness and instinct 
are one thing,” observed Nietzsche. 28 

The internalization and universalization of this renunciation of 
freedom is what Freud called sublimation. As Norman 0. Brown saw it, 
sublimation “presupposes and perpetuates the loss of life and cannot be 
the mode in which life itself is lived." 29 The very progress of civilization 
requires an even greater measure of renunciation, an even greater setting 
ourselves apart from our environment. And yet the “oceanic feeling” can 
still be powerfully felt, recalling that earlier state of being. How much 
fresher, more vivid and more valued life can feel after a serious illness; this 
many be the case upon our recovery from the sickness we call civilization. 

But here we are now, so very far from any original wholeness or 
fullness. And “the horror,” in Adorno’s judgment, “is that for the first time 
we live in a world in which we can no longer imagine a better one.” 30 
At present the only happy context is the imagined one, or at least, the 
happiness achieved in expressing the truth about unhappiness. In Milosz” 
heartfelt words: “It would seem that all human beings should fall into each 
other’s arms, crying out that they cannot live....” 31 

The aim of life is to live it strongly, to be fully awake. This aim collides 
with a new malaise of civilization, an End Times sense of everything, a 
“post”-you-name-it cultural landscape. A sense of helplessness promoted in 
no small part by the postmodern doctrine of ambiguity and ambivalence. 

Happiness entails refusal of Foucault’s “docile bodies” condition, 
insistence on being vivid rather than domesticated, determination to live 
as “barbarians” resisting the unfreedom and numbness of civilization. An 
instinct tells us that there is something different, however distant it may 
seem; we know we were bom for something better. The reality of deep 
unhappiness is the reminder of that instinct, which lives and struggles to 
be heard. The story of happiness did not have to unfold as it did. 

In our own lives we are so lucky to have a sense of being blessed, 
to have some gladness, a sense of worth. To have a certain astonishment 
at being here at all. For ourselves, meaning and happiness are always 
interwoven. Happiness is grounded in meaningfulness; a life of meaning is 
the meaning of life. “To happiness, the same applies as to truth: one does 
not have it, but is in it,” in Adorno’s pithy formulation. 32 



He also said, “Philosophy exists in order to redeem what you see in 
the look of an animal .” 33 “To meet myself face to face,” in Thoreau’s words . 34 
To realize ourselves in our distinctly human capacities within what is 
possible (i.e. not to blame ourselves for the limits imposed on us). And 
to find the strength to speak the unsaid. Unhappiness is not the result of 
understanding the real depth of our predicament; in fact, this understanding 
can be liberating, strengthening. It may lead to something that could hardly 
be more momentous: the quest for directness and immediacy in the real 
world. The project of confronting the very nature of our domesticated, 
civilized, technology-ridden unhappiness. 



1 Quoted in John Cowper Powys, The Art of Happiness (New York: Simon and 
Schuster, 1935), p. 49. 

2 Theodor Adomo, Minima Moralia (London: MLB, 1974), #18, p. 39. 

3 Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings (London: NLB, 1979), p. 

4 Helene Cixous, First Days of the Year (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota 
Press, 1998), p. 142. 

5 Ezra Pound, The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions, 1972), 
#CXVI, p. 795. 

6 Its etymology is of interest in this regard. From hap (Greek): chance, fortune, 
as in happen. Our English word luck comes, in fact, from the German for 
happiness, Gluck. 

7 Walter Kerr, The Decline of Pleasure (New York: Touchstone, 1962), p. 1. 

8 Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be? (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 5. 

9 Elisabeth Roudinesco, Philosophy in Turbulent Times: Canquilhem, Sartre, 
Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), p. 

10 Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics (New York: The Seabury Press, 1973), p. 

11 Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization (New York: Penguin, 2009), p. 498. 

12 Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (Oxford: Oxford University 
Press, 1958), p. 106. 



13 Vivasvan Soni, Mourning Happiness: Narrative and the Politics of Modernity 
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010), p. 494. 

14 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Charles Lam 
Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967), p. 41. 

15 E.M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist (New York: Quadrangle, 1968), p. 200. 

16 Ibid., pp 168-169. 

17 Jean-Fran^ois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge 
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 79. 

18 Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life 
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp 124, 130. 

19 Quoted and discussed in Timothy Taylor, The Artificial Age (New York: 
Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), p. 192. 

20 Peter LaFreniere, Adaptive Origins: Evolution and Human Development (New 
York: Psychology Press, 2010), pp 288, 296-297. Also Patricia Pearson, A 
Brief History of Anxiety... Yours and Mine (New York: Bloomsbury, 2008). 

21 Quoted in Peter Hallward, translator’s introduction to Alain Badiou, Ethics: 
an essay on the understanding of evil (New York: Verso, 2001), p. xxi. 

22 Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University 
Press, 1998), p. 114. 

23 Czeslaw Milosz, Proud to be a Mammal: Essays on War, Faith and Memory 
(New York: Penguin Classics, 2010), p. 80. 

24 Bruno Bettelheim, Freud's Vienna and Other Essays (New York: Alfred A. 
Knopf, 1990), p. 115. 

25 Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, translated by James 
Strachey (New York: W.W. Norton, 1962), p. 12. 

26 T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” in Collected Poems 1909-1962 (New York: 
Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1963), p. 208. 

27 Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, translated by James Strachey 
(New York: W.W. Norton, 1961), p. 12. 

28 Friedrich Nietzsche, Unmodern Observations, William Arrowsmith, ed. (New 
Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), p. xv. 

29 Norman 0. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of 
History (New York: Vintage Books, 1959), p. 171. 

30 Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “Dialogue," NLR September/October 

2010, p. 61. 

31 Czeslaw Milosz, op.cit., p. 296. 

32 Theodor Adorno, Minima Mora lia, op.cit., #72, p. 112. 

33 Adorno and Horkheimer, “Dialogue," op.cit., p. 51. 

34 Henry David Thoreau, Journal (Toronto: Dover Publications, 1962), p. 51. 


by John Zerzan 

Introduction by Michael Becker 

As our society is stricken with repeated technological 
disasters, and the apocalyptic problems that go with 
them, the u neo-primitivist n essays of John Zerzan 
are more relevant than ever. 

“ John Zerzan’s importance does not only consist in his 
brilliant intelligence, his absolute clearness of analysis and 
his unequalled dialectical synthesis that clarifies even the 
most complicated questions, but also in the humanity that 
fills his thoughts of resistance. Future Primitive Revisited is 
one more precious gift for us all.” 

—Enrico Manicardi, author of Liberi daiia Civilta 
(Free from Civilization) 

“Zerzan’ s writing is sharp, uncompromising, and tenacious. ” 

—Derrick Jensen 

“Of course we should go primitive. This doesn’t mean 
abandoning material needs, tools, or skills, but ending 
our obsession with such concerns. Declaring for community, 
our true origin: personal autonomy, trust, mutual support in 
pursuit of all the joys and troubles of life. Society was a trap- 
massive, demanding, impersonal and debilitating from day one. 
So hurry back to the community, friends, and welcome all the 
consequences of such an orientation. The reasons for fear 
and despair will only multiply if we remain in this brutal 
and dangerous state of civilization.” 

—Blok 45 publishing, Belgrade 

Feral House 

Cover design by Dana Collins 

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